Veteran Miami Beach party boat captain Wayne Conn had a tough time selling his youth fishing programs to local schools when he launched them 10 years ago. But today things are a lot easier.
“I got disheartened; they didn’t want me,” he said last week. “Now, they’re like, ‘please come!’”
Conn and co-director Randy White, along with a handful of volunteer speakers, had just wrapped up a 11/2-hour presentation to a rapt audience of 40 seventh- through tenth-graders at the Mater Academy charter school in Hialeah.
The kids are members of a new marine science club sponsored by their biology teacher, Monique Salazar. The talks and question-and-answer session served as a warm-up for the main event — a half-day fishing trip last Thursday aboard Conn’s boat, Another Reward, on Biscayne Bay.
“I grew up in South Florida. I’ve been fishing all my life,” Salazar said. “I think it’s so important for them to actually connect with nature because they don’t. They’re behind their computers. When they actually get out and do something, then they’re connected to it.”
Those were welcome words to Conn, whose non-profit Fishing and Conservation Trust (FACT) has hosted hundreds of students at “Kids, Let’s Go Fishing!” (www.kidsletsgofishing.com) workshops in both brick-and-mortar and floating classrooms in Miami-Dade County. His mission is to instill in kids a desire to “fish for life”, while teaching them respect for the marine environment, compliance with fish conservation laws, and good sportsmanship.
“My goal is to take you fishing and have a fun trip — with some education,” Conn told the kids.
At last week’s classroom session, White pointed out the importance of preserving marine habitats, such as coral reefs and sea grass meadows for fish to thrive.
“Can you play hide-and-seek on a football field?” he asked the audience.
“NO!” the kids replied.
“So, what else do fish need?” White asked.
“A place to hide,” his audience answered promptly.
Cassandra Weston-Hainesworth, an extension 4-H agent with the University of Florida Sea Grant program in Miami-Dade, showed the students how fish use the arrangement, shapes and colors of their body parts to feed and hide from predators. For example, fish with eye-like spots on their tails, such as a butterflyfish or red drum, have a “disruptive” color pattern to break up their shape when confronted by predators.
The audience was especially attentive to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer Serdar Mert and peppered him with questions, such as what kind of boat he drives (Boston Whaler) and whether he had ever rescued any refugees at sea (yes).
“I have the coolest job in the world,” Mert told the kids. “One day we’re out enforcing boating safety laws, the next we’re called out for a gator in somebody’s backyard, or a panther that got hit by a car.”
At least one student expressed interest in a career with the agency.
The kids also heard by Skype from Nova Southeastern University shark scientist Derek Burkholder with the Guy Harvey Research Institute. Burkholder explained how researchers tag sharks to learn about their movements, life history, and reproduction and showed them the long-distance, three-year track of a tiger shark tagged in Bermuda in 2009. He said they could follow the progress of tagged sharks at ghritracking.org.
The students eagerly anticipated the next day’s fishing outing, showing more than beginners’ knowledge of angling practices. One boy wanted to know whether he could bring his own tackle. Another asked whether the group would be using circle hooks — a proven conservation tool for releasing undersized or unwanted fish alive and unharmed.
Conn chuckled and answered yes to both questions.
The next day on Biscayne Bay, the students caught and released an estimated 150 fish — porgies, pinfish, grunts, margates, yellowtails, and lane and mutton snapper. They learned how to bait their own hooks and use de-hookers to release fish.
“Fishing is pretty cool,” one girl told the captain.
“Glad you enjoyed it,” Conn said.