Water Sports

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Fishing Derbies: When Kids Cast Out, Everyone Reels It In

12 Jun, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

You may forget the last fish you caught, but you'll never forget the first. And as event owners know, introducing kids to local fishing opportunities is one way of getting them away from their phones and into the outdoors.

Youth fishing rodeos (also known as fishing derbies and fishing clinics) are popular events. Parks and recreation officials are also hosting them nationwide this time of year. In the tiny state of Maryland alone, 6,000 kids learn to fish each year at a free fishing derby. Events start in March and run through fall. And as in most states, anyone 16 years of age and younger may participate.

“For a lot of kids participating in a fishing rodeo, it is their first real angling experience,” Maryland Fishing and Boating Services Director David Blazer said. “These events reflect a commitment across the state by the department, our partner organizations and many individuals to help youth develop a passion for fishing and for stewardship of our natural resources.”

To ensure participants have the opportunity to reel in a catch, parks departments nationwide work to keep ponds stocked with the fish. (In Maryland, those include hybrid sunfish, channel catfish and rainbow trout – although many bodies of water also offer up a healthy population of other native fish, including perch, crappie and even bass, which put up a good fight and give a young angler a thrill.)

And, says Tony Forte, secretary/treasurer of the U.S. Angling Confederation (US Angling), it’s good business when there’s a tournament in town to offer those same events.

“We believe very strongly in clinics and fishing derbies,” Forte notes. “They can be arranged and conducted very cheaply using volunteers – and it gets kids and spectators interested in the sport. All the pro bass tours are backing this as well.”

Destinations are rising to the bait with more offerings for children, often in conjunction with events that come to town.

“The Branson Chamber and CVB has partnered with Major League Fishing (MLF) to host the Bass Pro Tour Berkley Stage Six Presented by TrueTimber – May 17-22 on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri," says Terra Alphonso of the Branson/Lakes Are Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There are several exciting opportunities for kids and their families; for example: the opportunity to meet over 70 MLF pros, a meet & greet with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., a shooting expo, free concert and fireworks.”

Youth fishing rodeos are embraced by a wide range of event owners. Crappie USA (the American Crappie Association) has an entire page dedicated to events designed to bring the next generation of anglers into the fold. Bassmaster can explain how one organizer is able to set up a “lake” of hungry fish in the middle of a parking lot and teach kids how to catch one.

One snippet: “The biggest fish, a catfish in the 17- to 18-inch range, went on a measuring board and each hour [organizers] were presented with trophies that were engraved, “FUTURE BASSMASTER, Houston, Texas 2017.”

It’s this kind of encouragement, say event owners, that keeps kids interested and coming back to fishing holes. Many events combine multiple activities into one day. Orange County, North Carolina, offers a fishing rodeo that includes prizes (most creative fishing hat, first fish caught, shortest fish and biggest fish) as well as a hot dog lunch and an awards ceremony.

“FLW hosts a Youth Fishing Derby in conjunction with each FLW Tour event across the country,” says Joe Opager, Director of Public Relations for FLW. “These events are always so much fun and rewarding, for both the kids and the anglers. Often times it can be the first fish that the child has ever caught, and their expressions of happiness and joy is priceless. We’re exposing fishing and the outdoors to children that may not have had that opportunity before, and that is a great thing.”

Some areas have kicked it up a notch, holding species-specific derbies, such as those designed to rid local waters of invasive species including the northern snakehead and the Asian carp. (The U.S. Geological Survey has a page of invasive water species, in case anyone needs to find out what’s prevalent in their area.)

“Fishing for northern snakeheads in tidal creeks and rivers of Dorchester and Somerset counties is extremely popular and productive -- no limit, no minimum size; it is almost an angler’s conservation duty to get out and catch a bunch of them,” reads an e-mail from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. (And, after all, fishing efforts are generally part of the larger conservation conversation that includes the identification and elimination of non-native and invasive species.)

Fishing derbies also provide an opportunity to teach children about nature and ecology – as well as the fact that the outdoors is a great place for recreation. Branson is one of these destinations, says Alphonso.

“These activities teach children about fish and the habitats they live within, to be good stewards of the earth’s waterways and to ensure children have the tools to successfully and safely catch fish. They also learn about water safety, birdwatching, archery and other outdoor adventures.”

Expect some parks and rec departments to be tying the activities into the NRPA’s Family Health & Fitness Day on Saturday, June 8, meant to promote exploration of public outdoor spaces – including fishing areas in parks.

For most (if not all) events, loaner poles, bait and tackle, as well as guidance on safely casting a line, are necessary. In many cases, local parks and rec departments will partner with tackle shops in their area for the appropriate supplies – and parks employees have been known to scour flea markets, thrift stores and similar venues to build up a supply of rods for recreational use.

Youth fishing derbies often have a cut-off age – but getting kids hooked on the sport clearly pays off as they age. As far back as 2014, Bruce Howard of the National Federation of State High School Associations had noted an uptick in interest in bass fishing.

“Illinois started it,” said Howard, “and now Kentucky, Missouri and New Hampshire have followed.”

And they’re not stopping. Wayne Middleton, president of CareCo TV, speaking to SDM on behalf of the Association of Collegiate Anglers, said the growth of the sport at his level was largely driven by high school students who wanted to keep fishing when they entered college.

“High school fishing has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years,” noted Middleton. “This has led to a large increase in underclassman now competing at the collegiate level. And college fishing has helped to spur a growth in the fishing industry both in total anglers but also in the industry itself by growing new leaders. We’ve seen a lot of anglers who competed in the Association of Collegiate Anglers go on to start prominent careers in the fishing industry, as well as compete successfully at the professional bass fishing level.”

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