DADE CITY -- Ja’Bari Hill, 5, was all smiles as he bounded down the pathway to the river carrying a new red fishing rod and a paper cup filled with earthworms.
“He’s been so excited about this ever since he brought the flyer home from school. Got me up early because he didn’t want to miss this,” said his mom, Alexia Hill, who was close on his heels.
Ja’Bari, who attends Cox Elementary in Dade City, was the first in line when the annual Family Fishing Festival got underway on Jan. 18 at Withlacoochee River Park. And he was the first kid at the dock to try a hand at reeling one in under the watchful eye of his mom and volunteer Bill Barth of San Antonio.
“I’ve been doing this for three years,” said Barth, who typically favors lake or salt-water fishing. “I like helping people. Watching the children get their rod and reel. And, of course, it’s best when they catch a fish.”
Or perhaps, earn a Cub Scout badge.
That was the intent of 9-year-old Kathryn Sharkey of Masarkytown who proved to have a swift hand at casting. She came with her dad, Devon, and her pack leader, Andrew Allen, and his son, Kai.
Martin and Britanie VanSandt of Weeki Wachee brought their sons, Jacob, 2, Jackson, 4, and Joshua, 5.
The family spends a lot of time camping and fishing, said Martin VanSandt, as Jackson took a try at practice casting in the parking lot assisted by volunteer Culton Yaeger, 16, of Trilby.
“It’s great. There’s a lot of family interaction and promoting wildlife education,” Martin VanSandt said.
Nicole Fussell, who brought her two kids, her niece and two nephews, was happy to be back for more.
“This is our fifth year coming to this,” she said. “I love that the kids get the opportunity to get outdoors and not be on video games."
Getting kids outdoors is a focus of the festival, said Kimberly Miller, recreation coordinator for Pasco County Parks.
The event, now in its 23rd year has grown exponentially, said Miller. Sponsors include Pasco County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Fish Florida.
When Miller started 12 years ago, about 50 people came out for what was then a more intimate and more involved teaching of the sport.
More than 1,000 attended the 2019 festival, drawn in part by free fishing rods offered to the first 300 attendees.
This year, sponsors were prepared to hand out nearly 500 rods to youngsters who circled through five educational stations. Volunteers offered insight on how to bait a hook, cast a rod and tie knots. There were talks on fish identification and angler ethics and etiquette and some fun games, to boot.
Miller, a fishing enthusiast who frequents local lakes in search of bass and crappie, said she is delighted that the event has caught on. She understands the lure.
“First and foremost, it’s free,” she said. “And it’s a good way to get families detached from technology and get outdoors.
“Most of them will utilize the free rods we give out, and hopefully come back to our beautiful park.”
That would be the intent of the Wirick family, who made the morning trek from Trinity.
“This is awesome,” said John Wirick, as his son Carter, 5, fiddled with the worms in his cup.
The family typically fishes at their backyard retention pond, and were happy with the introduction Withlacoochee River Park after his wife, Charlyn, learned about the festival on social media.
“He wanted to bring his iPad. I told him he wouldn’t need it," Wirick said, as father and son set out to find a spot on the muddy river bank.
He was right.
Looking to get out and about? Check out these upcoming events:
- Movie in the Park, 7 p.m. Feb. 7 at Heritage Park, 5401 Land O’ Lakes Boulevard, Land O’ Lakes. Free. Relax under the stars with your family. Be sure to bring a lawn chair or blanket to sit on. (813) 929-1229.
- 29th Annual Anclote Fishing Tournament, 9 a.m. Feb. 15 at Anclote Gulf Park Pier, 2305 Baillies Bluff Road, Holiday. $3 per child. Ages 5- 14 years. Check starts at 9 a.m.. Fishing times are 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Space is limited to 75 children. Register as soon as possible at J. Ben Harrill Recreation Complex at 2830 Gulf Trace Blvd, Holiday, For more information, call (727) 942-7439. Sponsored by VFW Post 10167.
- Stargazing at Starkey, 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Starkey Wilderness Park, 10500 Wilderness Park Boulevard, New Port Richey. Free. Bring your own telescope or view the night sky through telescopes brought my members of the Pasco Astronomers Club.