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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) kicked off Nature Coast Fishing for Youth, its first class of the summer, last week in Cedar Key.
After an hour and a half bus ride, Taylor County kids scrambled off of the bus and under the open breezeway beneath the research facility’s offices and classroom.
The class started off with a 10 minute fish matching game and a welcome from instructor and FWC Environmental Specialist Missy Jackson and her assistant Thomas Zimmerman.
After the welcome, the group walked out to a nearby estuary and discussed some of the different types of living things they observed there. Jackson explained how the grasses, trees, and oysters that the children saw all work as natural filters of pollutants that seep into the estuary.
Next, the class moved upstairs to a large classroom where they took a short survey about their past fishing experiences.
“We give the children the survey to get some background about…their demographics and their fishing experience,” Jackson said.
Jackson then engaged the children in discussions about fishing tackle. She showed the children different types of bait, live and artificial, and explained why fish like certain colors and scents.
“Just like you like to eat certain things during certain times of the year, fish like to eat different things during different seasons,” Jackson said, holding up a brightly colored artificial minnow.
A knot-tying activity came next. Students in pairs were handed an extra large blunted hook and a long piece of string. They took turns tying the hook onto the string following the direction of Jackson and the chaperones.
“We use circle hooks because they are barbless. These specific hooks are made to dissolve in saltwater after three days, so if you absolutely can’t get your hook out of a fish, you can cut your line and the fish will likely live because the hook will dissolve when you throw back in the water,” Jackson explained to the children.
A quick lunch break downstairs in the breezeway, and the group returned to the classroom for a short lesson on regulations and why it’s important to follow them. The class talked about how long certain species have to be to keep them and how many fish one person can catch and keep in a day.
A brief lesson in casting, prepared to the group for a walk to the fishing pier, each student supplied with rod, reel and live bait. Students then fished on their own from the pier for more than an hour.
The big catch of the day was a small blacktip shark. Jackson and the group’s chaperones helped de-hook the shark and release it back into the estuary. “Part of my job is to teach ethical angling; we teach catch and release,” Jackson said.
When it was time to return home, the students put away their poles and had a quick snack before boarding the bus.
Jackson reminded the students to use the materials and booklets they were given in class to be ethical anglers, then each child was given a few surprise pieces of fishing equipment.
“The equipment we give away is supplied by Fish Florida which is the major sponsor for this program,” Jackson said. “When people buy a Fish Florida license plate, some of the proceeds of that purchase go directly to these supplies.”
Although the class is only a one day event, Jackson has plans to bring a few of her more experienced students back to Cedar Key later in the summer for an advanced angling class where two local fishing guides will take the group out into the Gulf of Mexico to fish.
Captain Doug Maple of Tidewater Tours in Cedar Key said that he is happy to volunteer his time and efforts to the class because he has “always had a passion for the environment and I’ve always liked kids, and (the Nature Coast Fishing for Youth class) brings the two together.”
Captain Dennis Voyles, who will also take a group of advanced anglers out to fish, agreed. “I have always helped young people as an educator, and since I had the opportunity to help kids learn about a possible lifelong hobby I jumped at it. Fishing can also lead to good stewardship of our resources if done right,” Voyles added.
This is the second consecutive year that the class has been offered since the fishing pier was repaired a few years ago.
Jackson hopes that word gets out so that people take advantage of this free activity. “Research shows us that if you get kids started at an early age, they are much more likely to become ethical anglers. We’re teaching kids ethical angling, responsible marine stewardship and conservation, and we start young so that, as the kids get older, they’re able to share this with their friends and family,” she said.
The free class, designed to teach ethical angling practices to children, is taught at the Cedar Key Marine Research Facility three times a week throughout the summer and is open to children ages six through 16.
Groups from summer programs and organizations such as 4-H are welcome to make arrangements for students, just like the 35 students from Taylor County.
“We usually cap the class at 22 students but we’ll make special arrangements for groups like today’s,” Jackson said.