The tip of the heavy conventional rod bent sharply over the gunwales of the charterboat Lisa L drifting in about 130 feet of water off Key Biscayne. Then just as quickly, the rod tip straightened. Filippo Sbroggio, 10, of Miami Beach noticed the movement and cranked the reel a couple of times to feel if a fish was attached to the other end of the weighted line — which it was. Filippo called over to fellow angler Umi Novitake, 7, of Miami and told him to start reeling.
Umi did as instructed and, a few minutes later, was rewarded with a 2-pound vermilion snapper, which he gleefully put into the cooler. It wasn’t Umi’s first fish, but it was his first vermilion and it would make for a delicious dinner.
Captain Mike Puller looked on happily from the helm. The outing was the first of the 2013 season for his 10-year-old Summer School of Fish, where kids from kindergarten to high school attend five-day camp sessions — four days of on-water, hands-on instruction and one day of shore-based education on boating safety and fisheries conservation. Sessions run through the week of Aug. 12-16.
“You get kids on a boat together and they instantly form this team, this bond,” Puller said. “Kids will surrender a chance at a sailfish for other ones who have never caught one. It gives you hope for the new generation that’s fishing so they will do a better job than ours.”
Filippo has attended the camp nearly every summer since he was 4, and says he has learned a lot from Puller and his mate Javier Picon.
“Captain Mike is very responsible with the fish,” Filippo said. “He knows what to keep and if it’s a half-inch small, he lets it go. He has taught us to be kind to the ocean. I learned from Javi how to set the kites. I’ve learned a bunch of knots — the uni-knot, the Bimini twist, the Albright, the improved clinch.”
Filippo said he has used the skills he developed at camp when fishing with his dad on the family’s 28-foot boat.
“I try to show my dad where to go — like to the edge,” he said, referring to the color change from green to deep blue in ocean waters where gamefish are known to congregate. “I have all the rods ready. I got a kite for Christmas so I set that out. I’ve really improved in the years in, like, technique.”
Some 600 youngsters have attended the Summer School of Fish ( www.thefishingexperience.org) since its launch. Sessions tend to book up early — especially this year with rates dropping from $780 to $390 per camper for five days — the result of donations from local businesses and foundations. Puller said he has brought some more charterboats on board such as his Crandon Park dockmates, the L & H and Wild Life, to accommodate more kids. Each boat takes a maximum of six campers on a day-long outing.
Puller hopes to expand the camp even more, and he has applied for non-profit status from the IRS in order to host children whose parents can’t afford to pay the regular rate.
“I want to reach kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the means,” he said. “My goal is to have 10 boats out every day.”
Another project in the pipeline is to partner with Miami-Dade County Schools to create an incentive program for students, using new educational software to track academic progress and reward improvement with fishing excursions and tackle.
But right now Puller has his hands full with eager campers, many of whom are repeaters registered for multiple sessions.
Eight-year-old Daniel Horowitz of Miami Shores says his dad, Adam, signed him up for three weeks of camp this summer, and he might extend. Daniel brings considerable experience to his first Summer School of Fish: he says he has released 19 sailfish and has caught 50 species in his short angling career. But he hungers to do more.
“I want to learn how to use the depth-finder and how to throw a cast net,” Daniel said. “I want to learn about different fish and how to particularly target them.”
With the whole summer ahead, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Chuckled Adam Horowitz: “I wish they had had something like this when I was kid.”