On Wednesday, June 28, 2023, thirteen-year-old Hayden Scholl (of Milton) caught his first fish at the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association’s HERYN (Helping Engage our River’s Youth with Nature) Program.
He added 11 more catches by the end of the day, including a decent-sized largemouth bass, helping him win his program day’s “Most Improved Angler” award.
The accomplishment was especially meaningful for a young man who, at six months of age, was diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID), more commonly called “Bubble Boy Disease.” Children with the condition lack the ability to produce their own immune system and usually must be isolated from others until a secondary “adopted” immune system can be developed.
He didn’t let the condition get in the way of his fishing or kayaking instruction.
“He paid very close attention to lessons on casting and he was able to do some great casts where he paid attention to placement,” said Walt Bingaman, of the program’s volunteer fishing instructors. “This allowed him to catch more and more, and you could just see his confidence grow with each fish caught.”
According to Susquehanna University intern and team leader Eric Belfanti, Hayden struggled at first during rotations to the kayaking instruction.
“He had a lot of trouble getting back into the boat after flipping in the swimming pool, but didn’t give up and still wanted to try a second time,” Belfanti said. “When we got to the lake, he had a hard time turning and what strokes to use when got visibly frustrated, but he kept at it, didn’t quit and definitely showed improvement.”
Developing an appreciation
According to Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky, improvement is a key concept for each HERYN program day.
“We offer these because we want each kid to develop an appreciation for our natural resources. We want them to become so excited about fishing, kayaking and getting outdoors that they go home and teach their families and friends the concepts and safety tips we share with them,” Zaktansky said. “As these kids improve throughout the day, they gain a confidence and a realization that to keep enjoying these resources, we need clean water and that process starts at home and in their local communities.”
A total of 86 young people ages 9-14 participated in one of six program days held between June 22 and June 28, 2023, at the Central PA Wesleyan Campground near New Columbia. Many were from local communities such as Milton, Lewisburg, Williamsport, Montgomery, Selinsgrove and Sunbury. Others traveled in from as far away as Kingston and Harrisburg.
Most of the instructors volunteered their time to the program, including head fishing educators Bingaman, of Shamokin Dam, and Mike Arnold, of Watsontown.
“The best part about helping kids is seeing how fast they learn and how far they come in such a short amount of time,” said Bingaman. “One neat thing I noticed this year more than in the past was how some of the participants with a little more experience in fishing jumping in and helping others when instructors were busy. One actually mentioned to me that he really liked seeing other kids catch fish because he gets to do it all the time.”
Participants are divided up into two teams at the beginning of the day and rotate each hour between kayaking and fishing instruction.
Kayaking begins in a swimming pool as students learn the importance of properly fitting life jackets and the basics of paddling and then practice how to handle a flipped kayak. Instruction then moved to the campground’s lake with demonstrations of different paddling strokes, some races and eventually kayaking competitions including racing to pick up oranges floating across the lake and yakball – soccer played in kayaks.
“I had fished before this program a few times a year, but had never kayaked before,” said Luella Gardner, 10, of Hughesville. “Now, I want to do them both all of the time!”
Fishing instruction begins with knot tying and how to rig a rod from scratch, casting tips and competitions and guided time on the lake catching bluegills, sunfish and sometimes a bass. At the end of the day, fishing instructors showed participants who were interested how to properly fillet and cook a fish and samples were given out to those who wanted to try them.
“It was an incredible experience. All of the counselors were amazing and patient with every child,” said Ramona Kroll, 12, of Montgomery, in her exit survey, adding that she intends to teach her family and friends how to bait a hook and tie a proper fishing knot. “I didn’t know much (about fishing and kayaking), but now I am obsessed.”
Before awards, giveaways and final photos, each program day ended with a short presentation from Belfanti and fellow Susquehanna University intern Peyton Johnson using an Enviroscape model to discuss how water flows, the value of a clean aquatic habitat, where pollution comes from and some tips on how to reduce pollution from entering the environment, starting at home and in our local communities.
“I'm hoping that kids were able to learn that even if you can't see surface water from where you are, it matters what you pour down your drains and how you use the land. I think it's important to tie in fishing, kayak and other water activities because people care for things that they find value in,” said Belfanti. “If we can get kids to value the environment and everything in it, they will hopefully stay invested in keeping it healthy so they can enjoy it.”
This was the third summer of HERYN programming, started via a PA Fish and Boat Commission R3 grant in the summer of 2021.
“It’s like the old saying about giving a person a fish vs. teaching him or her to fish – this program is designed to spark the next generation of people to care about and protect our clean water resources by getting them invested in the process,” said Zaktansky. “And like the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ concept, this program wouldn’t exist without the dedicated people who sacrifice their time and local businesses that donate their services and finances to keep this free for all kids and families regardless of their circumstances.
“Fishing is more than catching a fish and kayaking more than simply paddling a plastic boat across a lake. There is something deeply therapeutic about these activities, especially when shared with family and friends. It is such a joy to see these kids experience this and want to do more to protect these resources.”
Hayden Scholl agreed.
“I liked the fishing, which I thought was really easy, but the kayaking I didn’t like at first. As I learned how to do it better, though, I learned to like it,” he said. “It helped me gain more confidence in myself.”
Main sponsors for the program included the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, various chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation, Clark’s Wiggly Worm (near Middleburg), One Eleven Printing (Milton), Graceful Catering (Middleburg), Skeeters BBQ (Shamokin Dam), Arrowhead Restaurant (Milton), Gunzey’s Hot Sausage (Milton) and Goodwil’s Restaurant (Montandon) – as well as numerous individual donors.
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.