Don Dingman teaches the world to fish, one child at a time

The longtime captain will hold clinics for kids, and gift some with a free rod and reel, at the St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show.
Capt. Don Dingman, who has been on a mission to strengthen family ties through fishing after losing his son in 2004, will lead four clinics during the show?s weekend run.
Capt. Don Dingman, who has been on a mission to strengthen family ties through fishing after losing his son in 2004, will lead four clinics during the show?s weekend run.
Published November 30 2018

When Don Dingman was growing up, his dad used to pile him and a bunch of neighborhood kids into a station wagon to go fishing on the St. Augustine Pier.

Every week when they arrived, a little boy with a torn flannel shirt and worn-out shoes would be waiting.

Dingman's dad would always bring along an extra rod and reel and let the little boy fish with them. One day, that little boy caught a 58-pound drum.

"You've never seen someone so happy," Dingman recalled.

Then the years went by and Dingman grew up to be a fishing captain in Jacksonville with his own TV show.

One day at his charter service, Dingman met a man who talked about how much money he had and how successful his business was and how many properties he owned. That was quite the accomplishment, the man said, considering he had been neglected and abused growing up. The man told of how his dad used to put out cigarettes on his arm.

Then the man pointed to a photo of a bunch of kids holding up a monster fish. He asked Dingman, "You in that picture?"

Dingman said yes, that it was taken when he was just a boy. The man said he was in the photo, too. He was the little kid in the flannel shirt and beat-up shoes who caught that big fish. And look at him now.

That, Dingman said, is what fishing can do for a child. Which is why he now dedicates his life to introducing fishing to kids.

This weekend, Dingman will be at the St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show. There, he will hold clinics for kids, including giving up to 50 children at each clinic a free rod and reel. He holds dozens of clinics each year all over the Southeast.

"The dads want to come see the boats, and mom is like, 'Well, they're giving away free rods and reels over here,' " Dingman said. "So they come rather reluctantly to get the free rod and reel and then we teach them fishing."

Dingman certainly knows how to do that.

Born and raised on the east coast of Florida, Dingman, 56, has been a charter captain for more than 30 years.

Back in the early 2000s, a television production company approached him about hosting a show. Dingman didn't like the pitch, so the production company asked what he would do? His plan was simple:

"I'd take kids fishing."

They told him he was nuts, that it would never work. But they gave it a shot. Some 16 years later, that show, Hook the Future, is still going strong.

But for Dingman, it's more than a TV show.

"My dad's last words were if you have to talk to a thousand kids to reach one, never quit, never stop," Dingman said.

Dingman has never quit, never stopped. He finds plenty of support, including that little boy in the flannel shirt and ragged shoes. Dingman promised never to reveal that man's name but said he donates thousands of dollars a year to help Dingman outfit children to go fishing

Something else also happened that drew Dingman to reaching out to kids. His own son, Brian, died from a gunshot in 2004 at the age of 22.

"I tell people this is the whole reason I do it: I love teaching kids how to fish," Dingman said. "I love doing Hook the Future. But the reason I do it is to remind the parents how blessed they are. I wish I could give my kid hugs today. It didn't matter how much money is my bank account or what kind of truck I had or how big my boat was. All that mattered is the time. Time is everything."

But what is it about fishing? What is it about sitting on a boat or standing on a pier or wading through water, putting a worm and hook and trying to get a fish to bite that is so special? How does that bring people, especially adults and children, together?

"When you're out there with your dad fishing, you're not talking about chores, you're not talking about schoolwork, you're not talking about his job," Dingman said. "You're talking about fishing. You're trying to accomplish the same thing together."

It's not like hunting, where silence is required. It's not about shooting hoops or catching a football, where there is some skill involved. Fishing can be fun, even if you've never done it before. Even the success of landing a fish isn't necessary to have a fun day. You know what they say: A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.

And any day fishing is about as good as it gets when you're a kid.

"First of all, the fish doesn't know who's holding the rod," Dingman said. "The kid can catch just as big of a fish as anybody else. It's an equal playing field. … I don't know how to explain it other than it's just a mutually good activity and anybody can do it.

"Not every kid can be the high school football player, but everybody can catch a fish."

And Dingman is seeing to that, one child at a time.

If you go

What: St. Petersburg Power and Sailboat Show

When: Friday (10 a.m.-6 p.m.), Saturday (10 a.m.-7 p.m.) and Sunday (10 a.m.-5 p.m.)

Where: Duke Energy Center for the Arts, Mahaffey Theater Yacht Basin and Albert Whitted Park, St. Petersburg

Note: Free-for-youth clinics on Saturday at noon and 2, and Sunday at 1 and 3; registration not required and free rods and reels are first-come, first-serve, up to 50 per clinic

Tickets: Adults $17; children 15 and under are free, as are veterans and active military with proof of service