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Teaching the Next Generation of Anglers
One of the biggest concerns of fisheries and wildlife managers is recruiting future participants. With hunting and fishing participation on a downward slope, managers wonder where the next generation of hunters and anglers is going to come from.
At least one natural resources educator thinks he has the answer: from Michigan's cities and their suburbs.
Gary Williams is the outdoor and environmental education coordinator for a joint venture run by the Michigan State University Extension Service and the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. For a number of years, Williams headed up a program at the Pocket Park at the Michigan State Fairgrounds that, for at least one half day a year, got the computer game controllers out of the kids' hands and replaced them with fishing rods.
Some 2,000 people (about 85 percent youngsters, the rest their adult chaperones) attended Williams' program annually. The youngsters received a crash course on fishing, a little bit of basic biology, and then were turned loose around the facility's Lower Peninsula-shaped fish pond to target the 5,000 or so hybrid bluegills stocked there. The kids fished for about two hours.
The results? Well, Williams says that roughly 99.9 percent of them caught fish. And 100 percent said they wanted to go fishing again.
"The introduction to fishing should be successful and easy," said Williams, who left a career in human resources almost a decade ago to take on the task of educating youngsters in conservation. "We should eliminate all the barriers that we can."
With the future of the state fair facility in question, Williams is taking a new approach: He's hitting the road. This summer, Williams will hold his basic outdoors education program at state parks and recreation areas at Pontiac Lake, Proud Lake, Maybury, Muskegon and P.J. Hoffmaster.
The program starts youngsters with easy-to-use spincasting equipment with simple bobbers, hooks and kernel corn for bait.
"A lot of kids are squeamish," says Williams. "So I eliminated the worms. They don't need to be bothered with something squirming around. I've found that whole kernel corn works well."
Williams and his assistants patrol the fishing area, offering advice and assistance to the youngsters. If the crew finds a youngster who's just not getting it, they'll help hold the rod and set the hook - whatever it takes - to get the youngsters into a fish.
"We survey the kids toward the end of the session and work with those who have not been successful," Williams said. "We don't want kids walking away saying they did not catch a fish. That is unacceptable."
Williams says the youngsters are enrolled in the program from a variety of youth-oriented organizations - park and recreation centers, boys and girls club and 4-H Clubs, for instance. The youths arrive by bus from all over Michigan.
Depending on the ages of the youths, Williams - who has access to bows and arrows through the DNR's Archery in the Schools program - will introduce the youngsters to archery, too, but not unless the kids are mature enough and strong enough to be successful at sending an arrow downrange. The one thing Williams doesn't want, he says, is to give the youngbowsters an unsatisfactory experience.
That's because Williams is almost as much social worker as he is educator. In his last job, he worked with an agency that assisted adults with substance-abuse issues.
"It's been a joy to get out of that and work with kids so they don't wind up in a situation like that," he said. "If I can change lives and give some positive alternatives to drinking and drugging, isn't that a good thing? It's about making a difference. We've got to make a difference."
Not that Williams is ignoring the education part of the equation. He's also part of the Great Lakes Education Program, a fourth grade curriculum, introducing youngsters to environmental studies. The program features a 50-foot boat that takes youths out on the Detroit River and upper Lake Erie to learn about and explore the Great Lakes ecosystem.
The boat has four learning stations and each station one has two activities - one while the boat is in motion, one when it is anchored - and all youngsters rotate through the activities during the course of their half day on the boat. They'll take plankton and bottom-sediment samples, test the dissolved oxygen in the water and learn about marine knots and navigation. The experiences are followed up with classroom work.
The boat trips occur during the school year, in spring and fall, from about the last weekend in April until the second week of June, and again from third week of September until the end of October, depending on the weather.
And the fishing program? That varies. Williams' program will be held one day a week for eight weeks at Pontiac Lake, for five consecutive days at Proud Lake, one day a week for six weeks at Hoffmaster and Muskegon and for seven days at Maybury. Check the DNRE website www.michigan.gov/dnre for more information.
Although most of the youngsters have little to no experience with fishing when they arrive at the program, they have when they leave, even if "we have to trick them into taking the fish off the hook," Williams said.
"By the end of the day, we have them handling the fish," he said. "All my fish have the same name - 'Bubba' - and sometimes you'll get the same kids back that were there the previous year and they'll remember the fish is called 'Bubba.'"
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