Fishing Derby

(An edited version of this column was first published in the June 1, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    One of the traditional images of youth is the barefoot youngster striding off along a riverbank, creel hooked to the belt and fishpole slung over the shoulder.

    Unfortunately, the closest most of today's children get to that picture is watching reruns of the old Andy Griffith Show introduction with little Opie carrying the fishpole.

    I think that is too bad. Unlike the team sports that modern parents cart their youngsters off to, fishing is a low-impact, inexpensive and relaxing activity that soon becomes self-motivated and can be enjoyed for the rest of their children's lives. Statistics tell us that participation in this formerly most popular outdoor sport has leveled off and it is now further threatened by the fact that five out of six who fish first enjoy the activity before they are teenagers.

    But this Saturday, June 6, families can roll back the clock. They will have an opportunity to introduce their boys and girls to fishing.

    That day, as part of National Fishing Week, the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge will sponsor its 7th annual Youth Fishing Derby at Ringneck Marsh off Oak Orchard Road from 8 a.m. to noon. (Oak Orchard Road runs east from Route 63 between Alabama and Medina. From Buffalo take the Thruway to Pembroke, drive north on Route 77 and continue north on Route 63.)

    No pre-registration is required and free on-site registration begins at 7:30. Also, while supplies last, fishing grab bags will be distributed to registrants. Prizes will be awarded for the biggest legal fish -- bass are out of season now -- caught by "Small Fry", those aged 6 and under; "Keepers" aged 7 to 12 and "Whoppers" aged 13 to 17. Bring fishing tackle and a snack, but for first-timers who need it fishing gear will be available to borrow and bait will be provided.

    The Derby rules are straightforward. They include: (1) Each participant must be accompanied by a responsible adult who may not fish for the youngster. (2) Only one rod or pole may be used. (3) Participants must fish safely and courteously. And (4) the pristine quality of the area must be maintained by not littering.

    Ringneck Marsh is an attractive and remote part of the Iroquois refuge. I recall it best not for fishing but as the area where I once found a rare bird: a yellow-breasted chat. At this time of year the area along the dike that controls the marsh water level is usually closed to protect nesting waterfowl, but it will be opened only for this event.

    I asked Dorothy Gerhart, the Iroquois outdoor recreation planner and point person for this Derby, what kinds of fish the youngsters can expect to catch. She told me perch, pike, bullhead, crappie -- and the inevitable carp.

    National Fishing Week is a program administered by the American Sportfishing Association and is funded in part through grants from the federal Sport Fish Restoration Program and land management agencies. Local sponsors together with the Iroquois Refuge include the Iroquois Job Corps Center and the Junior Wilson Sportsmen's Club.

    One of the few sports that I regret having missed in my life is fishing. Although many of my friends fish, I have not done so since I was eight years old and happily caught sunfish and bullheads off our camp dock at Meacham Lake in the Adirondacks. I blame my failure to continue on my older brother who has the patience of Job and can sit still for hours. Agitated and compulsive, I found it impossible to match his calm demeanor.

    Now less manic, I am drawn to fishing once again.