St. Petersburg — Nineteen years ago, a 10-year-old girl named Karen Rodriguez fished the inaugural Pier Aquarium Kid's Fishing Tournament.
"I was hooked," said Rodriguez, now 29. "My dad and I had so much fun."
Her father, Craig Rodriguez, is hearing impaired. And although she is proficient in sign language, they did most of their communicating that day with a rod
"I love to teach kids how to fish," he said through his daughter. "I want them to know so they can do it on their own and teach others to fish."
Rodriguez did his work well. His daughter brought four children with her to Saturday's 19th running of this popular kid's fishing tournament.
"My son has been dying to go fishing," she said. "This year, he was finally old enough. I don't think he will want to go home."
Four-year-old Evan proved he had the discipline and patience to be a tournament-winning angler. The youngster's 9-ounce ladyfish was first in its division and earned the boy his first fishing trophy.
"He is so proud," Karen said after her son accepted his award. "He will remember this."
The Pier Aquarium, a nonprofit marine education center on the second floor of the Pier in downtown St. Petersburg, works to make youngsters stewards of the environment, said Howard Rutherford, the aquarium's executive director.
"This tournament helps teach ethical angling," he said. "We are trying to lay a good foundation for the future and show these kids that they have to do their share to help protect the environment."
This year's tournament broke all previous participation records, thanks in part to 300 free rods and reels donated by the Fish Florida Foundation.
"Registration started at 8:30 a.m. and by 9:05, we had handed out all the rods and reels," said Emily Stehle, the Pier's marketing director. "By 9:45, we had 565 participants signed up."
That is 200 more than last year, Rutherford said.
"We were very fortunate this year to have the Glazer Family Foundation step up and help us expand," Rutherford said. "As you can see by this turnout, there are a lot of kids who want to go fishing."
Beginners and experts
When it comes to angling, St. Petersburg's Keith Dudley is a purest. He fishes exclusively with a fly rod and loves to catch snook and tarpon within sight of the city's skyline.
But on Saturday, Dudley and his daughter, Lila, 7, and Luke, 2, were trying to master the finer points of a customized SpongeBob push-button rod and reel.
"We are out here for nothing but fun," he said. "I don't think they really care if they catch anything or not."
Dudley hopes his daughter will catch the fishing bug. But he added, "Right now, she is more interested in being pulled in an inner tube behind a boat than she is in fishing out of one."
Gray Maloney, 7, loves to fish with his mom, Eileen. "There is a video of him fighting a pinfish off the Skyway," she said. "You should check it out. It gets a lot of hits."
Fishing with 7-year-old Hanlin Majewski and her father, Billy, Gray refused to put his rod down even when the other kids went in search of snacks.
His persistence paid off in the form of a 12-ounce flounder, which was good for second place.
"What a fisherman," his Uncle Billy said, congratulating the boy. "Wait till next year."
The tournament coincided with the opening of the Pier's new sport fish exhibit, Counting on Fish, which shows how Tampa Bay's marine science community helps preserve our valuable recreational and commercial fisheries.
The exhibit features a 352-gallon sport fish aquarium stocked with snook, red drum, black drum, spotted sea trout, gag and red grouper, which is then linked to a smart pad touch screen that gives background information on each species.
"It is great that we have a facility like this in downtown St. Petersburg," said Tommy Workinger, who brought his 11-year-old son Jacob to the tournament and new exhibit.
"We are a big outdoors family. Anytime you can get a kid outside doing something like this instead of sitting around playing video games, it is a step in the right direction."
For information on the Pier Aquarium and its ongoing educational programs and summer camps, go to www.pieraquarium.org.