A pitted cork fishing rod handle clutched tightly in my small 8-year-old left hand, I carefully grasped a length of line from above the open-faced reel with the first two fingers of my right, just as Dad had shown me countless times before.
That touch was the key to his trout-fishing success, he had told me. You feel every bump and snag the worm-laced line and split-shot sinker makes across the bottom of the creek's limestone-littered bed.
With experience, you also learn which of those faint tugs indicate that a hungry trout has taken interest -- and when that fish has put itself in a position to be netted after a proper hook-setting jerk of the rod.
My father and I were fishing the banks of a small creek just below the farmhouse owned by a woman I remember only as Mrs. Spronk. We were living in central New Jersey at the time, and Mrs. Spronk's pond and the creek that fed it were popular places for my brother and I to explore.
Knowing that my father was likely watching my every move, I re-focused on the task at hand. The line tightened erratically, likely quick snags on various rocks as it slowly drifted downstream.
Then, suddenly, a quick tug that was noticeably different than the rest. I whipped the rod high above my head, my excitement more likely to rip off the trout's jaw than simply set the hook securely in place.
I started reeling, relieved to still feel the fish fighting my efforts as I turned to offer Dad a quick smile and a plea for instruction on how to best get this catch on shore, but he wasn't there.
A few moments later, he rounded a nearby tree as I worked to dehook the beautiful 18-inch brown trout and put it on my stringer. His face was beaming as I realized the significance of what just happened -- this was the first trout caught completely on my own.
A little more than three decades have passed since that day -- a day that illustrates to me the proof that no fishing trip is simply just about catching fish, especially when young people are involved.
Fishing offers an opportunity for growth, maturity and character building. Fishing teaches self-sufficiency and builds confidence. Fishing connects us with nature like few other things can. Fishing allows us to keep alive the memories of loved ones we've since lost -- people like my father who passed away seven years ago. Fishing is one way he has left behind a multi-generational legacy and vested interest in the outdoors that I have enjoyed with my own children and look forward to share with other young people within our watershed.
If you didn't see the recent announcement, the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association has been awarded a portion of $160,000 in grants by the Fish and Boat Commission for a program we are calling HERYN (pronounced heron), which stands for Helping Engage our River's Youth with Nature. It felt like the perfect fit, tying in directly with the image of the great blue heron that is at the core of our riverkeeper logo and backstory.
This program will get young people outdoors, learning the same valuable lessons I picked up from my dad and others over the years. We are developing a team of experienced people to teach the essentials of successful fishing and kayaking. We are looking for businesses and individuals who may want to help via donations of equipment and/or funds to make this program self-sufficient and sustainable -- with plans of expanding it throughout the watershed in the years to come.
Ultimately, the HERYN program is designed to not only connect young people with the basics of successful fishing and kayaking, but hopefully sparks a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors and an internal drive to protect our environmental resources as the next generation of river-based stewards.
For more information, watch for updates and share your interest in getting involved via our HERYN Program landing page. You can email me directly with your comments or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
Donate toward the HERYN PROGRAM
Do you want to donate toward some of the equipment or other resources necessary to make sure the HERYN Program is successful and sustainable? Use the following form:
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.