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Volunteers help promote youth fishing

Florida Fishing Articles, Regional Fishing, United States Fishing Articles |

The “2012 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report” indicated that 46.2 million Americans fished in 2011. Approximately 18 percent of youths (6 to 24 years old) and 16 percent of adults enjoyed wetting a line, making recreational fishing the most popular “gateway activity” in the country. The Outdoor Foundation defines gateway activities as those that often lead to other outdoor participation.

What makes that so important is the well-established finding that active, nature-based recreation leads to happier, healthier and more productive lifestyles (see; Moreover, the future of Florida’s environment and recreational activities such as fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing and camping are tightly interwoven with having people that are passionate about nature.

David Sobel, author of “Childhood and Nature,” wrote in an article titled “Beyond Ecophobia” that, “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”

The Sunshine state is fortunate to have an abundance of dedicated individuals who want to share their love for nature and outdoor recreation and who are committed to “Creating The Next Generation That Cares™,” which is the tagline for the Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network ( That tagline is the rallying cry to establish a statewide network of conservation centers designed to encourage and empower kids to participate in traditional outdoor recreation and stewardship.

Ultimately, it comes down to dedicated individuals who have the passion for teaching kids about recreational fishing and conservation. This column focuses on a few stellar examples, but they are by no means the only such employees, volunteers and friends of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) who are helping create the next generation of anglers.

The Jacksonville Youth Summer Fishing Clinic Program began in 1993 under the guidance of biologists for the Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (now part of FWC). Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration, which uses funds from fees on the sale of fishing tackle and motor boat fuels collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, paid for the initial programs. Within a few years, the American League of Anglers and Boaters recognized the Jacksonville Urban Fisheries Project as the best SFR project in the country.

In 1997, Mike Lesso, a health and physical education teacher at a Jacksonville-area high school, was hired on a part-time basis to conduct summer fishing clinics. In 1999, another instructor, Dave Morse was added. The program quickly expanded and became one of the most sought-after summer activities for local summer camp programs for 8- to15-year- olds. Lesso and Morse provide a three-hour clinic that begins with instruction about fish identification and biology, pond ecology, recreational fishing rules, ethics and safety. Next, they teach knot tying, pole rigging and casting. The last 90 minutes are for hands-on fishing – quite naturally the highlight for the kids, many of whom have never fished before.

They conduct most of the clinics, which begin in June and run through the second week of August, on Huguenot Pond or Crystal Spring Fish Management Areas (FMAs). FWC biologists intensively manage these FMAs to provide local anglers and camp participants with exceptional opportunities for productive bank fishing.

In 2007, budget shortfalls threatened the program; however, Lesso and Morse were determined to keep the camps open and helped secure two major grants. Lara Kramer, chief executive officer of the Fish Florida Foundation, and her board have been instrumental in keeping the program going. Fish Florida Foundation is funded by the sale of the “Fish Florida” specialty vehicle license tags that feature a beautiful sailfish. The Baldwin Foundation also supports the fish camp program. The FWC continues to supply materials and equipment to support the program.

These dedicated instructors do all the work in coordinating and teaching hundreds of kids each week through this program. Lesso and Morse have instructed more than 60,000 kids and are outstanding examples of the dedicated staff and volunteers committed to ensuring Florida youth have the opportunity to learn and enjoy fishing. They are far from alone.

The FWC’s Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management now coordinates week-long summer fish camps at 15 locations around the state that will host 44 sessions this summer and directly reach about 650 students. The camps are fun and informative for kids who enjoy the outdoors, teaching them angling and boating skills, as well as introducing them to conservation stewardship and the possibilities of a future career.
Below is a listing of the current freshwater fish camp network sites:
Northwest Region
Joe Budd Youth Conservation Center – Midway
Beau Turner Youth Conservation Center – Lamont
Northeast Region
Marion County at Horseshoe Lake Park – Ocala
Ocala Youth Conservation Center – Silver Springs
YMCA Camp Wewa – Apopka
Southwest Region
City of Oldsmar – Oldsmar
Tenoroc Fish Management Area – Lakeland
Florida Gulf Coast Center for Fishing and Interactive Museum – Largo
YMCA Camp Cristina – Riverview
Camp Gilead – Polk City
Masonic Park & Youth Camp (operated by Camp Frontier) – Wimauma
South Region
Clewiston at Roland Martin’s Marina – Clewiston
Florida Fishing Academy conducted on Lake Ida – Delray Beach
Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation conducted at Tropical Park – Miami
Riverside Retreat – LaBelle

In addition, Steve Marshall, the FWC’s freshwater aquatic education coordinator, has trained instructors who will have run about 151 additional programs for 5,500 students by summer’s end at other facilities. Some of the best known of these include:
Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation Department – Miami-Dade County
Mahogany Youth Corporation – Miami-Dade County
Town of Miami Lakes Department of Community and Leisure Services International Game Fish Association – Dania Beach
Florida Fishing Academy – Palm Beach County
Sonfishers – Brevard County
City of North Port Parks and Recreation Division – North Port
Lake Manatee State Park – Bradenton
Florida Gulf Coast Center for Fishing and Interactive Museum – Largo
Sensing Nature, LLC – Seminole
Idlewild Baptist Church – Lutz
Pasco County at Withlacoochee River Park – Dade City
City of Altamonte Springs – Altamonte Springs
Lake Griffin State Park – Fruitland Park
Maclay Gardens State Park – Tallahassee

Many of these groups are part of the FWC effort to create the next generation that cares and to help sustain your fisheries and other natural resources. The Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network program goes beyond freshwater fishing and includes saltwater fishing, shooting sports, wildlife viewing and boating. Visit its website at to learn more or participate, and check out the volunteer website at GetInvolved and select “Volunteer.”

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