Photo by the Department of Natural Resources
DNR director wants youth movement
SPRINGFIELD STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER
SPRINGFIELD — The moment when the pole doubles over under the weight of a fish on the line elicits the same excited reaction from kids and adults alike.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources director Marc Miller took a turn last Monday helping kids learn to fish at the youth fishing pond located just inside the gates of Conservation World at the Illinois State Fair.
“It’s cool,” Miller says. “I really enjoyed that, and I’m going to spend as much time here as possible.”
He was helping 10-year-old Nick Bolt of Pawnee cast, watch the bobber and set the hook.
Getting the fish off the hook was the toughest job.
“The hardest part was trying to keep hold of the fish to get the hook out,” Bolt says. “It was kind of scary.”
Fishing was fun, but Miller’s presence at the fishing pond, BB gun range and elsewhere in Conservation World during the run of the fair had a serious side.
That’s because kids have a lot of entertainment options these days with the Internet, video games and other indoor pursuits right at their fingertips. Kids might not grow up enjoying the outdoors like Miller did.
And participation translates into license and stamp fees that fund wildlife and fish restoration programs. Fewer hunters, anglers, birders, bicyclists, hikers and trappers mean less money to set land aside for wildlife or stock rivers and streams with fish.
It’s an issue outlined in Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods.” Gov. Pat Quinn often quotes Louv’s book when he talks about the health benefits of outdoors recreation.
During the fair, Miller wanted to bring extra attention to the department’s focus on youth recruitment and retention.
“This is what we should be doing at DNR,” Miller says after the kids finished their fishing session. “We should be getting kids engaged in our outdoor traditions.”
If there were more kids like Sam King, 4, of Cincinnati, Ohio, DNR’s job would be a lot easier.
On a Wednesday morning with rain in the forecast, King and a few other kids took advantage of short lines to shoot arrow after arrow in the kids’ archery tent.
“One more time, and then we have to go,” says King’s grandmother Linda Wornat of Hillsboro, Mo.
When an arrow finds the target, King gets a high-five from Rick Pohlman, a civil engineer with DNR who was staffing the archery range.
At the fishing pond, DNR staff and volunteers run five sessions a day with about 200 kids able to catch a fish — some for the first time — each and every day of the fair (which continues today and Sunday). Nearly 4,000 fish are stocked during the duration.
“So far they’ve all caught a fish — every one,” says Herb Drier, DNR’s urban fishing program coordinator.
Those who grew up in a rural setting probably shake their heads and laugh at the idea of having a special station set up where fair visitors could touch a fish or hold a turtle.
But for a lot of people growing up in urban areas, it’s a new experience.
“The really popular thing is to touch a fish,” Drier says. “We had 3,500 people come through on (the first Saturday of the fair).”
According to a report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — Fishing and Hunting Recruitment and Retention in the U.S. from 1990-2005, about two-thirds of people who hunt and fish were exposed to the activity before they reached 21 years of age.
The percentage of kids exposed to fishing dropped 10 percent during those years, meaning many more kids were growing up never having touched a fish.
The study was spurred by a survey that showed fishing participation in the U.S. dropping from 35.6 million in 1991 to 34.1 million in 2001. Hunting fell from 14.1 million to 13 million during that same period. In contrast, the population increased 13 percent.
The report concludes that the decline in participation can be traced to both recruitment (getting participants interested in hunting and fishing) and retention (keeping them involved).
It’s a trend that natural resources managers all over the country — including Illinois — are taking very seriously.
Getting kids to catch a fish, try their hand at archery or take a ride in a French voyageur’s canoe at the fair could be a first small step.
It’s a serious job for Miller and DNR, even though hanging out with kids at the fishing pond looks like more fun than work.
“If our focus is on youth recruitment and retention, then my focus is going to have to be on that too,” Miller says.