By Kelly Bostian
It has to start somewhere, and oh how it starts, with that excitement, the anticipation and the big reward.
In the atmosphere of 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Good in Houston, with the most-coveted fishing trophy in the world on the line, hundreds of children of the country's fourth-largest city got their first taste, and smell, of fishing.
Seven-year-old Dayana Benitez grasped her nose when a gentle breeze moved over the catfish pond as he she and 49 of her second-grade classmates approached that most popular feature of the Shell Bassmaster Get Hooked on Fishing presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors outside the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, Friday morning.
“Eww!” the girl said in a high nasal squeak as she shared the sentiment with 8-year-old Jerzon Rivera, who was all too happy to embellish with an “aaargh!”
“He’s my neighbor,” Dayana announced. “We’ve never been fishing.”
Minor olfactory discomfort fell quickly away, however, as the youngsters learned the pond really did have “real fish” in it for them to catch. “I hope I get one,” Dayana announced.
“I’m going to catch a shark!” Jerzon continued with his gift for the fantastic.
Sporting their fluorescent orange Red Elementary School t-shirts and mostly following the directions of their teacher to “remember, line and calm, remember, line and calm” the pair was two of 850 Houston Independent School District elementary school students to board busses and enjoy an hour’s experience at the many features of the Get Hooked area, courtesy of Shell Rotella.
The venue is open to the public 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday too with a variety of fun-for-kids features supported by several other Houston-area companies and organizations, including Academy Sports + Outdoors, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Coastal Conservation Association, and the Harris County - Houston Sports Authority.
The biggest draws of the free venue include kids casting instruction, Super Retriever Series dock jumping dogs (also offering a chance for walk-ons) and the kids fishing pond.
Texas Wildlife and Parks Department and Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation has the Take Me Fishing/Vamos A Pescar Interpretive Trailer and Challenge, where students learn about common Texas fish species and how to be a safe and ethical angler. The challenge is offered in both English and Spanish, and encourages teamwork and exploration. TPWD also is promoting its Fishing Tackle Loaner program that allows students to checkout rods and reels, much like a library book.
Other activities include Bassmaster Elite Series pro Jacob Wheeler on-site signing autographs and special giveaways from Academy Sports + Outdoors for the first 1,000 children each day and a wildlife display with live hawks and owls with the Texas Wildlife Center.
Friday’s school bus lineup was the result of more than a year’s planning between B.A.S.S. and the school district, said health and physical education specialist Elaine Gomez. The schools cannot easily afford this kind of field trip, especially on such a large scale, she said. Some of the students rode the bus nearly two hours one-way to reach the venue.
“Shell provided everything today so there was no way we were going to pass this up,” said the administrator and certified volunteer fishing education instructor known locally as an advocate for the value of outdoor education experiences in the schools.
A core-curriculum philosophy for education continues to run strong, she said. Convincing a school principal on a budget that fishing is not only a worthwhile expense but one that offers lessons in the sciences, math and communication skills is not always an easy sell, she said.
The social and conservation aspect of the experience also is vital, she said.
“I’m the kind of person that thinks if kids are not taught about the outdoors and the ethics and environment when they’re young they just don’t understand it as adults. If they become a part of it and really enjoy it they become good stewards of the lands and waters and we want our kids to grow up to be good stewards,” she said.
The need is real and the school-initiated introductions do make a difference, she said. Houston has a variety of urban fishing opportunities and state park lakes and estuaries are a short drive down the road. “We work to get parent engagement too, and the kids, they just fall in love with it immediately,” she said. The vast majority of the children at the event Friday – second grade through sixth – had never gone fishing.
“You would be surprised, when I was teaching angler education in the high schools a lot of the students had never been outside the city limits, much less held a fishing pole in their hand,” Gomez said. “Here, today, not only do they get these experiences but they each get a rod and reel that is being shipped to their school for them so they can continue enjoying it outside with their parents.”
Friday Dayana, Jerzon and their friends stood face-to-face with a live Harris’s hawk, great-horned owl and a crested caracara at the Texas Wildlife Center booth, where volunteer Brian Mihura explained why the Harris’s hawks are called “wolves of the sky.”
“It’s because they are special among hawks. Most hawks hunt alone, but these are social, they hunt in packs almost like wolves,” he said.
Dayana stared at the creatures and asked on the side, “Are those really, real birds?”
They learned how to cast a line with volunteer teachers like Jaden Parrish, 13, and Garrison Byerly, 12, among others, from local high school bass fishing clubs.
Jerzon excelled at casting instruction to the amused chagrin of his instructor, who was told to try his best not to let the hook-less lures fly beyond the venue and into the new Wings Over The Water art sculpture and fountain in front of the Brown Center.
“When I did it, it went far!” Jerzon said, repeating the casting motion with big eyes and a casting-motion sweep of his arm.
They learned a little about the history of fishing and the difference between a J-hook and a treble hook from an experienced angler, collected nifty “swag bags” with t-shirts and sunglasses from sponsor Academy Sports.
They watched a 30-pound Australian cow dog from California named Tater jump a full 17 feet out from a dock to splash in the water in the Super Retriever Series and, of course, they fished for a few minutes. They had a lot of ground to cover in one hour, so fishing time was limited.
They didn’t catch anything, unfortunately.
“I know how to fish now but I needed more space,” Dayana said, not the first angler to complain she was being crowded on the water.
Jerzon empathized with the catfish. “If I was a fish I would dodge every rope,” he said.
Both children, and the whole fishing pond area, erupted in squeals and yells as classmate Kallee Proctor, 8, popped a big catfish out of the pond on a barbless hook.
“I screamed and I just yanked it out,” she said of her big catch.
A classmate challenged her for not being willing to touch the catfish once it was out of the water, but she had a valid response. “Hey! I’ve never been fishing before,” she said.
The admiration of her classmates put a permanent smile on her lips and a gleam in her eye.
“I think maybe I’m going to win a Grammy award,” she said.
That’s not quite the trophy anglers are looking for this weekend, but she’s got the right idea.