Is there anything more rewarding than introducing a child to the joy of being outdoors?
I certainly can’t think of anything better. I was lucky enough to experience it June 5 in my role as a public information officer with Colorado Parks and Wildlife when I attended a free fishing clinic in Denver designed to teach city kids the joy of fishing.
After a year when many such events were canceled or postponed indefinitely, it felt especially good to help out during Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s annual Free Fishing Weekend, which takes place every year during the first weekend in June.
I was excited as I headed up to Lake Mary at Rocky Mountain Arsenal on the east side of Denver for a first-of-its-kind event called “Fishing with the Cops,” a partnership between the Denver Police Department, Denver Parks and Recreation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The event was the idea of Denver Police Department Homeless Outreach Officer Jared Feher. And he was targeting area children with a specific goal.
“I want to get them to a place where they feel like they could actually catch a fish,” Feher said. “That’s why we planned it on free fishing weekend. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Denver Parks and Rec are donating poles so each kid can take one home with them.”
Free Fishing Poles
Colorado Parks and Wildlife donated hundreds of free fishing poles for those who showed up to the event that lasted from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Statewide Angler Education Coordinator Andre Egli met me lakeside and I watched as he took groups of kids around to educational stations to teach them about what fish were in the water (largemouth bass, bluegill, and crappie) and then helped get them set up with a fishing pole and bait. Egli told me that just getting the gear into kids’ hands was huge.
“We provide free poles and other giveaways so that they’re leaving with the knowledge and some of the gear they need so they can continue to do it,” Egli said. “There can be barriers for people to get outdoors and try new things like fishing. With free fishing weekend, we remove the financial barrier for everybody. Everybody can go fishing.
“And at clinics like this, not only do they get the training they need to learn how to cast, they learn to handle fish and about what types of fish might be in that body of water.”
As the families started drifting in, I could see joy and excitement on many of the childrens’ faces as they cast their bait into the water for the first time. This was an experience that would stick with them for a lifetime.
I quickly found myself helping kids practice their casting, pointing out bluegills in the water below, and helping put fake salmon eggs and power bait on hooks.
Rise Hammons, 6, asked me if I could help her learn to cast. With just a little bit of guidance and help attaching a fake salmon egg on her hook, she was ready to join her brothers fishing from the dock.
While I helped, I had a chance to chat with some of the parents about how they were enjoying the day.
Balbina Contreras had come with her husband, daughter, son and a family friend to try fishing for the first time. She said she had heard about the event on a parents group page on Facebook.
“It’s not something we would have done otherwise,” Contreras said. “We didn’t even know about these trails over here. I didn’t even know about this lake.
“(This event) lets us know that we do have these opportunities, and that it’s so close to where we live. It makes us aware of what’s here and how to enjoy it more.”
Contreras said the family planned to do some wildlife viewing at the Arsenal after they were done fishing for the day.
Liza Hunholz, assistant director for the park ranger program for the city and county of Denver, also praised the event.
Finding Local Opportunities
“We’re on the east side of Denver and on this side of town, there isn’t a lot of water,” Hunholz said. “There are not a lot of fishing opportunities. So it’s a wonderful opportunity to get people to see that this is here. Especially in some of these neighborhoods that don’t have a lot of water or are underserved in terms of resources.”
I asked her why she thought events like this were important.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to collaborate on something where we can get kids into the outdoors and exposed to fishing,” Hunholz said. “It’s a great gateway to watching wildlife or photography or hunting.”
Over at the station where kids got instruction in learning to cast, Denise Guillen talked with me about bringing Jaysen Davis, 8, and Dominique Guillen, 4, to the Arsenal.
“It’s their first time fishing,” she said.
I caught up with her on the way out, asking her how the kids enjoyed their day.
“They loved it,” she said. “We’re coming back. They had a great time.”
Getting Hooked on Fishing
At the end of the day, I asked Egli what messages he tries to impart to kids and those he talks to at fishing events.
“We always try to tell people to respect nature,” he said. “We want people to come in and leave the outdoor space they’re enjoying better than they found it. I try to encourage people, if you go out fishing and you see some trash, throw it in your pocket.
“Be better than that person that left that trash there. If everybody strives to be better than the person before them, then the land that we’re in will be better for the next generation.”
Before I left, I asked him what his hopes were for those who had fished for the first time today.
“My hope is that they all get hooked on fishing,” he said. “I hope they not only go fishing today and tomorrow but decide in a week or so that this was a lot of fun and they’d like to go again. Maybe they will visit a state park. Maybe they go up to Rocky Mountain National Park. My hope is they go someplace and get outside and fish again.”
For those hoping to continue fishing after Free Fishing Weekend, you can pick up your license at cpwshop.com, check out regulations and other important information in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 2021 Fishing Brochure (Spanish translation), and sign up for the Fishing Report for regular updates on fishing conditions around the state.
Travis Duncan is a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver. Travis has lived in Colorado nearly 20 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. All Photos courtesy of Wayne D. Lewis/CPW.