MAYFLOWER (AGFC) – Nearly 270 sixth-grade students from Frank Mitchell Intermediate School in Vilonia were the first anglers to enjoy the latest improvement to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's shooting range in Mayflower at their annual fishing derby Tuesday.
Jodi Brewer, a sixth-grade teacher at the school who coordinates the derby with the AGFC's Hooked on Fishing – Not on Drugs program, said the fishing event continues to improve each year, and the new pond really makes a world of difference.
"I remember fishing in a derby when I went to Vilonia," Brewer said. "We started it back up about five years ago and have had the event ever since."
Brewer says restarting the event took a lot of trial and error.
"The first two years, we brought the kids out and just fished with some cane poles," Brewer said. "During our second year, the kids fished all day and caught maybe four fish and a stick. Some even mentioned that they would have rather been in school. That's when we called Dawn Cook with HOFNOD to learn how to do it better."
Cook, HOFNOD coordinator for the AGFC, said she has a lot of schools come to workshops and learn how to keep their students interested during these all day events.
"You have to have a lot of different activities to keep them interested," Cook said. "But that takes a lot of people and commitment from volunteers."
In addition to teachers from the school, close to 100 parents and 25 high school students volunteered to help with the many stations needed to put on the huge event. Some led fun exercises such as scavenger hunts and fish bingo, while others baited hooks, untangled lines and helped release fish. Some parents even set up a cleaning station to filet fish if the students wanted to bring home their catch.
Cook says one of the best things about setting up fishing derbies like this is that all the students stay busy having a good time while they're learning about different subjects. Those stations disguised as bingo and scavenger hunts actually are teaching the students fish anatomy and regulations. Other stations have more obvious subjects, such as smoking prevention and alcohol and drug abuse awareness.
"All of our HOFNOD materials are aligned with state education frameworks," Cook said. "So it makes it easier for teachers to meet their needs while letting the kids have some fun."
The lessons aren't crammed into a one-day derby alone. Teachers at Frank Mitchell Intermediate School present materials from HOFNOD trainings throughout the school year to teach many subjects. Before the students load up on the bus, they've had at least a few basic casting lessons in their Physical Education class.
"We have a set of rods and reels for the class to learn on in PE class," said Will Black, fifth and sixth grade physical education teacher at Frank Mitchell. "We also spend a lot of time playing a backyard bass game, where students cast at and catch fish-shaped targets to collect points."
Brewer says the derby also is an excellent team-building exercise for most students.
"We have some kids that have ponds in their backyard at home and fish all the time, and then we have some who have never learned to cast a rod and reel," Brewer said. "What's really neat is that here, you'll see some kids that never really interact with each other at school work together to help each other out catching fish."
The pond where the students spent their time also is the result of an ongoing work in progress. While the range has always had one pond that hosted derbies, the new pond features a central island, dozens of artificial fish habitats and a clean shoreline ringed with soft grass.
"The pond actually is the borrow area from when the range's berms needed to be rebuilt years ago," said Grant Tomlin, range development program coordinator for the AGFC. "Clifton Jackson, former Family and Community Fishing Program coordinator wanted to make it a location for that program, but it was surrounded by a thicket and a lot of people didn't even know it was here."
AGFC staff worked to clear all the thick brush away and establish a more inviting shoreline. They also moved a culvert to build up a walkway around a low section of the pond that was always too swampy to walk around. But the pond still had a few problems.
"Each summer, the pond would just about evaporate away," Tomlin said. "We'd get a dry spell and the water would just seep out, but at the end of last year, it was still holding a little water."
Thanks to an extremely wet spring, the new pond is actually a foot or two above its target level. Tomlin hopes the pond has established a firm enough bottom and will continue to be a great attraction to the range.
"It is open to youth 16 and younger whenever the shooting range is not operating," Tomlin said. "Mondays, Tuesdays and any time after 4:30 p.m. the rest of the week."
Visit www.agfc.com/HOFNOD to learn more about HOFNOD.