WEEKI WACHEE — They toted fishing poles and tackle boxes. Some fashionably announced their experience by wearing broad-brimmed slouch hats that bespoke "fisherman."
They were 8- to 14-year-olds, 18 of them in all, who yearned to learn more about fishing at a five-day camp this week sponsored by the Hernando County Parks and Recreation Department, with help from Cooperative Extension Service specialists.
At Monday's two-hour orientation presentation from Chuck Cichra, fisheries biologist from the University of Florida, the youths were so enthralled they didn't even fidget.
Cichra engaged his listeners with handouts of slimy algae, floating water lettuce and duck weed plants, and anchored cattail specimens. He described how plants provide oxygen to the water, homes for tiny crustaceans that fish consume and shade. Plants are also places to hide from predators, as well as spots for larger fish to catch smaller ones.
"The more you know about water, plants and fish, the better the fishing," Cichra said as he elaborated on the aquatic food chain.
Hernando Extension director Stacy Strickland tackled technicalities such as line trimming, hook tying and baiting.
"Do you know how to bait hook a worm?" Strickland asked the group. While a chorus of yeses broke out, 8-year-old Matt Platt of Weeki Wachee, one of the affirmatives, declared, "My sister can't. She's a wimp."
Nearby, sister Ashley Platt, 11, admitted, "I use a rubber worm."
Ashley persisted with "ick" when Strickland showed off a preserved coral snake as she lectured on the need to look out for a variety of poisonous snakes in central Florida. The coral snake can be quickly identified by it's black head, Strickland continued, adding, "Black head, you're dead."
Cichra displayed a variety of live baits, extolling the tastiness of each for different varieties of fish.
Then it was off to Cody Lake at the Heather community. With sunfish, bluegills, catfish and bass in the water, Strickland advised baiting with live worms. "Slide it on your hook like putting on a sock," he demonstrated.
Matt Platt's worm squiggled and twisted, denying the youngster's administration. "I haven't done this for a long time," explained the 8-year-old.
"You can use half a worm," suggested Harry Johnson, camp coordinator for Parks and Recreation.
Just the thought of tearing a worm in half elicited a grimace from 10-year-old Abby Pons of Brooksville.
While Pons had only fished once before, other day-campers reported much more experience. Ben Southall of Brooksville, 9, said his dad started him fishing at age 2. Likewise, said Austin Tincher, 12, of Floral City. Justin Hypes of Brooksville, 10, said he's fished "all my life."
With lines expertly cast, 12-year-old Ryan Starry of Brooksville landed the first catch, a sunfish.
Southall immediately put what he had learned from Cichra to use by throwing a long line. "I saw a wake over there, so I just cast over there." He reeled in a bluegill. "Nice one," he enthused. "Look at that." He posed for a photo.
Other tidbits the youths said they learned during the first day of camp that they hadn't known previously:
"How to tie a hook," said Tincher. "I always just tied five knots before."
"Crawdads have 10 legs," offered Hypes.
"Different baits," added Starry. He enumerated that bass don't like shrimp, while catfish prefer live or rubber worms.
Most knew about catch and release, order of the day at Cody Lake. Strickland advised needle-nose pliers for the inexperienced to extricate the sharp hooks.
Other fishing excursions this week included visits to Mary's Fish Camp near Weeki Wachee, Weeki Wachee Preserve off Osawaw Boulevard, Cemax phosphorus pits near Brooksville and Fort DeSoto Park in St. Petersburg.
Information and registrations for other day camps this summer are available by calling Parks and Recreation at 352-754-4031.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org