In his 22 years of teaching physical education, Edgar Fowlkes has gained great appreciation for activities that gets kids of all abilities moving their bodies. His passion for fishing collided with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Fishing in Schools program, whose curriculum he’s incorporated in his Northmoor Elementary School classroom over the last two years.
“This levels the playing field for a lot of kids that normally don’t like PE because they can’t shoot a basketball or don’t run very fast,” said Fowlkes, whose school is in the Moore Public School District. “Everybody is successful, and it’s one of those skills that brings people together as opposed to something like dodgeball where the strongest kids reign.”
Fowlkes has fond memories of fishing with his grandpa and typically spends his days off decompressing with a rod and reel. He’s realized the current generation has little experience fishing, making the opportunity to teach his kids a brand-new skill even
“I get to pass along something I love that can be a lifelong skill for these kids,” said Fowlkes. “And fishing gets them in the outdoors, away from the Xbox and
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation launched Fishing in Schools in 2011 and currently has more than 400 active schools participating, with an average of 50 schools added each year, primarily via word of mouth. The program is offered free to Oklahoma schools as part of an outdoor education package, which also includes curriculum on archery, bowhunting and bow fishing.
The department trains and certifies interested teachers, and through a grant, covers the cost of equipment, a value of $500 for the fishing program alone. The archery program does require some out-of-pocket equipment costs for schools, though the majority of total costs is covered by a grant. Schools are required to implement the outdoor education curriculum during the school day so all students can enjoy the program’s benefits. Some schools offer stand-alone outdoor classes, but most, like Fowlkes, incorporate the lessons in PE.
“So many schools are on a tight budget, so this is a great program to introduce at a low cost with a lot of added support,” said Daniel Griffith, aquatic education coordinator for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
The Fishing in Schools curriculum covers much more than how to cast. Fowlkes teaches his students about fishing equipment, why certain times of year are best for fishing, identifying markers for various species of fish, how to tie knots, the importance of conservation, water safety and how fishing contributes to the state economy. The Department of Wildlife Conservation receives no state tax dollars, relying on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and federal excise taxes on equipment to fund initiatives like building new boat ramps or fishing docks and improving wildlife habitats and hunting access around the state.
“Creating future hunters and anglers though this program will bring in money that will help us better manage our state’s resources and wildlife,” said Griffith.
Little anglers in action
The classroom curriculum encourages active participation from students. Jeremy Miller, PE teacher at Rockwood Elementary School in the Oklahoma City Public School District, teaches the curriculum to his students over a two-week period, where they most enjoy learning to cast and reel in pretend fish in the classroom.
After completing the program, teachers often schedule a field trip to a local body of water so students can try out their new skills. Fowlkes arranged a Saturday fishing outing for students and their families at a pond in Moore so little anglers could catch perch and catfish. Eli Tamez, a third grader at Northmoor, loved fishing and appreciates that Fowlkes is “strict but not too strict.” Eli’s mom, Tonya Lett, values that Fowlkes is more intent on building character than athleticism and provides such a wide array of activities in PE.
“My kids love that there is such a variety, like archery and fishing,” said Lett, mom of three. “I went to a smaller school where we didn’t have these kinds of opportunities, and [traditional PE] can be hard on kids who aren’t coordinated with a ball or who struggle.”
Though the program doesn’t require schools to take students fishing, it’s become a special rite of passage for many participants. When Griffith realized some schools couldn’t afford transportation, his team formed a partnership with the Paul George Foundation, focused on getting kids active outdoors, to cover those costs.
“Learning in the classroom is very different from being able to utilize those skills to actually catch a fish,” said Griffith. “I love kids’ reactions when they catch their first fish, and all the other kids’ reactions as they huddle around to look at it, touch it and fight over who gets to put it back in the water!”
Miller’s students were one of 13 recipients of that transportation funding last school year.
“The Wildlife Department met us out there, supplied all the poles and had hooks baited and waiting for the students,” said Miller.
Most of Miller’s students had never held or even seen a fishing pole before he introduced the curriculum. In fact, the first day he brought a pole to class students asked if it was a sword or a light saber. After completing the curriculum, many added a fishing pole to their Christmas wish lists.
“Many of these kids come to school, go home and play video games or watch TV,” said Miller. “This allows them to experience something new and get out of their comfort zone.”
Like Fowlkes, Miller was raised fishing and enjoys taking his six kids out on his boat. He has been awestruck at both the support provided by the Wildlife Department and his students’ reactions to the program.
“This is so easy to incorporate into the classroom, and the staff does an incredible job working with teachers, replacing broken equipment and even removing the barrier of transportation costs for some schools,” said Miller. “We are getting kids involved in something they can do for the rest of their lives that’s inexpensive to enjoy, which is what they need.”
Fowlkes is teaching the Fishing in Schools curriculum again this fall. Because fish are eating more aggressively as they prepare for hibernation, they are easier for his students to catch this time of year. Fowlkes looks forward to continuing the archery program after his students took first place at last year’s state competition, earning the highest score for any elementary team in the state in their first year to compete.
“These are tremendous programs,” said Fowlkes. “This has helped PE teachers give our students more options than the traditional stuff. You’re not going to reach everyone with basketball, but these programs allow every kid to get up and move and participate.”
Miller laughingly remembers the student with the first catch of their field trip, who initially ran away from the fish on her line. Ironically, she caught more fish than any other students that day. Several students
with wide eyes declared fishing was something they’d always hoped to try. Many had never seen a fish before and were eager to see how the scales felt under their gentle touch.
“The smile on their faces when they’ve mastered the skills and pull in a fish for the first time makes it all worthwhile,” said Fowlkes.
Fishing near you
For kids or families learning to fish, close-to-home waters are area lakes and ponds managed by the Wildlife Department or cities that are stocked with fish regularly.
“Find a place where a child can become successful even if they are just catching little perch,” said Fowlkes. “It’s better to say ‘I caught something’ as opposed to three hours without a bite.”
Once kids find success at some of the smaller close-to-home waters, Miller recommends families explore area lakes like Hefner, Draper and Overholser to provide new and sometimes more challenging experiences. The Wildlife Department offers ongoing events, including popular summertime family fishing clinics. Oklahoma City Parks & Recreation also offers free fishing days the first Saturday of each month and Hooked on Fishing classes at various local fishing waters throughout the metro during the summer. Free clinics offer participants engaging, informative presentations followed by fishing. No license is required and equipment is provided.
In addition to a state fishing license, some cities and municipalities require daily or annual fishing permits. Anglers 16 years old through under age 62 should contact local officials for permit costs and requirements. For more local fishing resources, visit www.metrofamilymagazine.com/fishing-in-okc.
Fishing is big business in Oklahoma, with anglers supporting more than 15,000 jobs and spending $1.8 billion on fishing equipment annually, according to Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell. Pinnell’s office launched a new tourism initiative in June, the Oklahoma Fishing Trail, designed to better capitalize on Oklahoma’s popularity for fishing, namely because of the state’s fish diversity and lack of fishing seasons and restrictions. The Wildlife Department had a hand in creating the web site that highlights the best fishing spots around the state, which Griffith says will also be a resource for the teachers and students in the Fishing in Schools program.
“The trail will encourage kids to take the skills learned and go use them,” said Griffith. “It also shows the importance of fishing, not just for tourism but as a means of helping fund conservation.”
For more on fishing bigger bodies of water around the state, families can peruse the new Oklahoma Fishing Trail, featuring 38 lakes, at FishinOK.com. For more information about Fishing in Schools, visit www.wildlifedepartment.com/education/fishing-education/oklahoma-fishing-schools-okfits.