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Volunteers help promote youth fishing

The “2012 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report” indicated that 46.2 million Americans fished in 2011. Approximately 18 percent of youths (6 to 24 years old) and 16 percent of adults enjoyed wetting a line – making recreational fishing the most popular “gateway activity” in the country. The Outdoor Foundation defines gateway activities as those that often lead to other outdoor participation.

What makes that important is the knowledge that active, nature-based recreation leads to happier, healthier and more productive lifestyles (see; Moreover, the future of Florida’s environment and recreational activities such as fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing and camping are interwoven with people’s personal passion for nature. David Sobel, author of “Childhood and Nature,” expressed this thought as, “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”

The Sunshine State is fortunate to have numerous dedicated individuals who want to share their love for nature and outdoor recreation and are committed to “Creating the Next Generation That Cares™,” which is the tagline for the Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network ( That tagline is a rallying cry to establish a statewide network of conservation centers designed to encourage and empower kids to participate in traditional outdoor recreation and stewardship.

Ultimately, it comes down to dedicated individuals, with a passion for teaching kids about recreational fishing and conservation. This column focuses on a few stellar examples, but they are by no means the only such employees, volunteers and friends of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) who are helping create the next generation of anglers.

The Jacksonville Youth Summer Fishing Clinic Program began in 1993 under the guidance of biologists for the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (now part of the FWC). Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration (SFR), which uses funds from fees on the sale of fishing tackle and motor boat fuels collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, paid for the initial program. Within a few years, the American League of Anglers and Boaters recognized the Jacksonville Urban Fisheries Project as the best SFR project in the country.

In 1997, Mike Lesso, a health and physical education teacher at a Jacksonville-area high school, was hired to conduct summer fishing clinics. In 1999, another instructor, Dave Morse was added. The program quickly expanded and became one of the most sought-after summer activities for local summer camp programs for 8- to 15-year-olds. Lesso and Morse provide a three-hour clinic that begins with instruction about fish identification and biology, pond ecology, recreational fishing rules, ethics and safety. Next, they teach knot tying, pole rigging and casting. The last 90 minutes are for hands-on fishing – quite naturally, the highlight for the kids, many of whom have never fished before.

They conduct most of the clinics, which begin in June and run through the second week of August, on Huguenot Pond or Crystal Spring fish management areas (FMAs). FWC biologists intensively manage these FMAs to provide local anglers and camp participants with exceptional opportunities for productive bank fishing.

In 2007, budget shortfalls threatened the program; however, Lesso and Morse were determined to keep the camps open and helped secure two major grants. Lara Kramer, chief executive officer of the Fish Florida Foundation, and her board have been instrumental in keeping the program going. The Fish Florida Foundation is funded by the sale of “Fish Florida” specialty license tags that feature a beautiful sailfish. The Baldwin Foundation also supports the fish camp program. The FWC continues to supply materials and equipment to support the program.

These dedicated instructors do all the coordination work and teach hundreds of kids each week through this program. Lesso and Morse have instructed more than 60,000 kids and are outstanding examples of the dedicated staff and volunteers committed to ensuring Florida youth have the opportunity to learn and enjoy fishing. They are far from alone.

The FWC’s Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management now coordinates week-long summer fish camps at 15 locations around the state that will host 44 sessions this summer and directly reach about 650 students. The camps are fun and informative for kids who enjoy the outdoors, teaching them angling and boating skills, as well as introducing them to conservation stewardship and the possibilities of a future career.

In addition, many other instructors were taught by FWC staff and sponsor their own fish camps. Many of these camps are affiliated with the FWC effort to create the next generation that cares and to help sustain Florida’s fisheries and other natural resources. Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network programs go beyond freshwater fishing and include saltwater fishing, shooting sports, wildlife viewing and boating. Visit to learn more or participate, and check out the volunteer website at