Mixing kids, fish and fun at wildlife refuge

A smile illustrated emotions better than words as Allison Richart held her green plastic fish, her prize catch in lawn fishing.

Richart, 4, grinned out from under the special fish bandana she designed shortly before by tracing cutouts onto cloth with crayon-like utensils. At her age, she was not likely to utter anything profound, but everything in her body language announced she was having a good time.

That was the point at Saturday’s fishing festival at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Seymour. The event, coinciding with an Indiana free fishing day, was all about introducing youngsters to fishing, and the goal was to have fun and learn. It was a sunny, mild day of family bonding and father-son bonding with the attendees largely from Seymour.

Allison and others who gave the lawn fishing a fling, or cast, were rewarded with prizes, appropriately each receiving a bag of goldfish crackers and a gummy worm.

This was a station-to-station operation. Youngsters and adults stopped by an Indiana Department of Natural Resources booth that offered several giveaways, including colorful fish posters, a booklet of fishing regulations and other fishing-related information. Also, live red worms were passed out to those who planned to fish for real at Discovery Pond across the road from the visitor center.

There is one body of thought that if youngsters are introduced to fishing at a young age, even if they drift away from it for a time, they eventually will return to the activity.

“I think there is probably truth to that,” said Zach Voyles, a DNR wildlife biologist who works out of North Vernon and helped out Saturday. “There are disruptions in life. Then when you settle down in life, you remember what it was like when you went fishing with your dad and grandpa and want to have that experience with your kids.”

Kids were the focus. Lawn fishing consisted of casting with a lightweight rod. Plastic fish of varying colors, maybe 10 inches in size, were sprinkled around the grass in front of the visitor center.

The lure was a clothespin. No one was going to get hooked by that wooden item in case of errant throws. Periodically, there were with a cast hitting the side of the building and one reaching the roof.

The object was to cast, as if in fly fishing, dropping the clothespin behind the fish, then slowly draw it in while trying to latch onto the fish on the way by.

“We call them backyard bass,” Muscatatuck Park Ranger Donna Stanley said of what are essentially toy fish. “It’s harder than it looks.”

Bridyn David, 9, was the first customer up, and while he kept coming close, dragging that clothespin through the blades of grass and sneaking up on those fish, he kept barely missing. Then he got the knack of it and hooked one.

“A lot harder,” David said in agreement with Stanley of the challenge.

Eli Mullins, 5, snared his plastic fish pretty swiftly.

“I knew I could,” he said.

His sister, Emilee, 7, also got the hang of the form quickly.

One of the first things kids did was make fish bandanas. Volunteer Sandy Scholz manned the popular station, which was basically a coloring stop. Each youngster received a plain white piece of cloth. Scholz held up examples of potential designs with fish drawn on them.

The kids placed the cloth on a flat table surface and traced around fish cutouts that resembled puzzle pieces. After that, they filled in coloring of their choice, not necessarily any combination seen in nature.

Oliver Kinnett, 6, colored in a fish brown in one place, orange here and blue there. If Kinnett had caught a fish that looked like that, representatives of the Smithsonian Institution would have scheduled an appointment.

Kinnett may be young, but he is a veteran angler at Discovery Pond.

“We come here a lot,” said his dad, Jeremy Kinnett. “He loves to fish whenever we can.”

Another station featured cane pole making. Fishing rods can be purchased easily enough in large department stores, but sometimes, it is forgotten individuals made their own poles for thousands of years.

A large batch of bamboo was donated by Wanda Shafer from Reddington, and the stack was arranged on a table for consideration. The poles were between 10 and 12 feet in length, and some of the kids who received them were less than half that in height.

Refuge wildlife specialist Angela van Winden staffed the table and helped kids set up a pole with string capable of throwing a worm.

“They’re pretty excited,” van Winden said of the youngsters’ reaction as she worked with Oliver. “It’s hands-on. They think it’s pretty cool they get to take it home.”

Reed Barlow, 9, and his father, Josh, checked out the bamboo choices and were anxious to try out the new pole at the pond, a place they had visited many times.

“He loves it,” Josh said of his son’s interest in fishing, noting they also have fished at Starve Hollow and Monroe Lake.

However, Reed is one of those anglers who enjoys the activity but isn’t big on fish for dinner.

“I don’t like eating them,” he said.

The Indianapolis Fly Casters Club, participating in this event in Seymour for the first time in years, worked to make converts out of kids. Some very small youngsters faced serious challenges with the necessary arm movements that would have made them instant casting pros like Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It.”

Perhaps a surprising number of the kids were not encountering fishing for the first time. The Cady-Richart family of Seymour may fish a couple of times a week, and the group made sure to stop in at Discovery Pond’s dock. Of little Allison, Chris Cady said, “She has been fishing her whole life.”

Her whole life was 4 years, but indeed, Allison had first fished at age 1. Brantley Cady, 6, brought in a small bluegill and held it up before releasing it.

The fishing was a little slow at the pond this afternoon, though the red worms lured some bluegill onto kids’ rods.

Zeke Lewis, 6, had fished before but had never caught a fish. His first one landed was a small bluegill. Lewis threw it back.

“Bye, fishy,” he said.

He caught a few more, as well. Zeke was thinking bigger. If it was up to him, he would be fishing for sharks. He looked around the pond, though, and paused.

“I don’t think we have sharks in here,” he said.

If so, it would have made the day at the fishing festival.