Program aims to get kids hooked on fishing, not drugs

The state Department of Environmental Protection operates a unique fishing camp.

On a beach in Fair Haven, young fishermen and women are learning how to catch bait.

Captain Brian Rice owns charter boat company Jersey Devil SportFishing. During the summer, Rice leads ‘Hooked on Fishing – Not on Drugs,” a camp for local kids.

“We teach them everything from basics of knot tying to spooling up the reels to how to put together rods, how to store rods and how to fish,” he said.

The program is run by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“‘Hooked on Fishing – Not on Drugs’ is a nationally accredited program that was created by the Future Fisherman Foundation,” said Alanna Newmark with the state DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife who works with the camp. “In 2012, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation mandating the program in New Jersey — that Fish and Wildlife runs this program.”

According to Newmark, there are about 22 active groups in New Jersey. Program leaders include boat captains like Rice, club directors, interested parents and others.

“I don’t talk about drugs at all in the program,” said Rice “It’s just an underlying message there.”

First Mate Justin Gaita said the program is “just something to get their mind off doing stuff with the wrong people, getting them to have a hobby.”

“I do think that it does what it’s supposed to, which is keep kids away from drugs and alcohol and give them something else to focus on which is the fishing and camp,” said camper Kyle Gavlick.

Eleven-year-old Caroline Conway said she sees how the program keeps kids on the right track and focused.

“When you’re fishing, you kind of don’t think about anything. You kind of have a clear mind. You’re kind of just thinking about what you’re doing in the current moment, you’re thinking about catching a fish putting on the bait,” she said.

Captain Rice began his camp here in Fair Haven three years ago. It started with just 12 kids but its grown. Now there are nearly 50 participants in the program. They each spend a week on the dock, on the beach, and on the last day of the camp, they head out on the captain’s fishing boat.

After a long week, Rice beamed with pride. He said he watches the campers mature and become more respectful of themselves, their peers and their environment.

Camper Parker Gorman said he feels more confident. “Just by casting out catching fish I just feel like I’m getting better and better,” said Gorman.

The charter boat captain knows many of the kids look up to him, too.

“I’ve heard a few stories talking about Captain Rice what would he do and Captain Rice this and so it’s a big responsibility so I try to carry myself the best I can,” he said.

“Often our group leaders, they are in a role to be a positive models for kids,” said Newmark. “As I learned the hard way with my own son, children don’t always listen to their parents. Sometimes they listen to the other people better, and I think it’s important that children have someone in the community they trust that they can look up too.”

The Division of Fish and Wildlife is offering a two-day training course for potential program team leaders in September and October.

“We talk a lot about what they need to do to be involved in the program and be eligible to receive our support whether it’s financial funding for taking kids on trips or gear and equipment, all the youth that participate in the program typically receive their own fishing pole,” said Newmark.

The program is not just about fishing. The team at the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife created a curriculum that focuses on positive life skills like ethical decision making and healthy interpersonal relationships. Students also have a chance to learn all about the environment.

“My biggest hope for kids in the program is to understand their sense of place that they have these fond memories to look back on being with, family or friends or positive community role models and as they grow up they can introduce their kids or youth in their community into it,” said Newmark.

Conway is certainly going to cherish these memories. She caught a couple fish and is already looking forward to next summer.