by Matt Burlingame
The Indiana Catfish Conservation Association (ICCA) was founded in 2012. Its mission is to promote the management of Indiana’s catfish resources with scientifically relevant data and grow the sport of catfishing through outreach and increased angling opportunities.
Over the years the ICCA has worked closely with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to see regulations changed in Indiana to protect catfish from excessive exploitation. With efforts focused on regulation change, the organization hasn’t taken many opportunities to get more people involved in catfishing. In the past year however, ICCA conversations have begun to shift towards doing just that. So, when an opportunity became available last summer, the ICCA took the bait.
Each year at the Indiana State Fair the Indiana Department of Natural Resources gives children the opportunity to catch fish at the State Fair Fishin’ Pond. This pond is a 300,000-gallon concrete structure stocked with 3,000 hybrid bluegill and another 1,000 channel catfish. The pond’s irregular “shoreline”, and installed structure to hold fish, allow over 15 children to fish for 15 minutes in scheduled sessions throughout the day.
Since the pond’s creation, 12 years ago, Go FishIN Program Coordinator Clint Kowalik has seen nearly 40,000 kids fishing at the State Fair. Obviously, providing one-on-one angling instruction to over 3,000 kids each fair season is a big job and requires a lot of help. Finding enough volunteers for two shifts per day throughout the course of the State Fair is a daunting task for Kowalik – especially for the very last shift.
The ICCA heard that the DNR was in need of more volunteers. Kowalik was contacted and the ICCA offered to fill that last shift. It was Sunday, August 21, 2017. Thirteen ICCA members traded in their baitcasters for cane poles and assisted the kids with fishing in the DNR pond. It was an experience enjoyed as much by our members as it was by the kids!
During the 3-hour shift we put nearly 200 new anglers on fish for the first time in their life. The kids were encourage – and sometimes begged – to bait their own hooks and unhook their own fish, so members spent time instructing participants on how to do this. There was also a fair amount of time spent untangling lines!
Ironically, Kowalik indicated that our group caught substantially more channel catfish than any other shift. Despite this, the number of kids getting skewered by dorsal and pectoral fins was, thankfully, surprisingly low!
As an organization, it was great to be able to partner with the DNR and be of assistance to them. However, the experience of engaging Indiana’s youth with something we all love was an amazing opportunity. Seeing wide-eyed kids trying to get a hand around their very first fish and watching the ear-to-ear grins on teenagers as a 12-inch channel catfish sailed through the air at them after a vigorous hook-set is nothing less than magical. We had so much fun that we have already booked that same shift for next year.
The ICCA will continue to look for opportunities to help get kids have an opportunity to fish. As the national trend of decreased fishing and hunting license sales continues, most natural resource agencies are looking for ways to partner with fishing, hunting, and conservation organizations to get people back outside and engaged in hunting and fishing.
We at the ICCA would like to encourage everyone to contact your local resource agency and see how you can help. The future of conservation depends on having that strong base of hunters and anglers who have always been the ultimate driving force in conservation.
Epilogue: Matt Burlingame is one of the founding members of the Indiana Catfish Conservation Association and served as the group’s President from 2012 – 2016. Matt has a B.S. in Fisheries Science from Virginia Tech and an M.S. in Biology from Kansas State. He has worked as a fisheries research biologist, served on the faculty of Manchester University, and is currently employed as a fisheries biometrician with the Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife.
You may follow the activities of the ICCA by visiting their Facebook page.