RUSKIN – Although the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation summer fishing camp isn’t a tightly kept secret, its third-year program leaped in popularity this summer. For the first time all four, two-week sessions at E.G. Simmons Park sold out. In fact, due to its word-of-mouth popularity – and returning campers – the county added an additional fishing and nature camp at Upper Tampa Bay Park.
It also didn’t hurt to have some brand-name recognition.
This year, popular marine wildlife artist Guy Harvey sponsored the fishing program by lending his name – the Guy Harvey Saltwater Fishing Camp – and contributing $10,000 to help purchase rods, reels, tackle, casting nets and educational material.
The camp is the brainchild of Dave Ramirez, a Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation programs supervisor.
“I was thinking about something like this for years,” said Ramirez, an avid angler. “The goal is to get kids back outside.”
Ramirez said he and his staff are safety-minded, making sure the 40 kids who attend each session are hydrating and applying sunscreen and bug spray. Beyond that the camp is all about fun, fishing and being a part of nature.
Heather Cobb coordinates the nature and outdoors program. With her 26 years of experience as a recreation leader for the parks department, she finds fun ways to teach kids about nature, conservation, camping and hiking.
Even arts and crafts on rainy days are nature-related. Cobb leads campers on making survival bracelets, ceramic fish and sharks and tie-dyed camouflage T-shirts.
Making bird feeders is always a big hit.
After exploring the park, campers collect pinecones and roll them in peanut butter and birdseed. Then they hang the feeders in trees and Cobb’s staff breaks out binoculars for the kids to watch and identify the wildlife that visit. Campers also use dipping nets to scoop up inhabitants of the Tampa Bay shoreline and the park’s waterways and mangroves, then use magnifying glasses to identify them.
A summer camp experience meant to teach lifelong lessons and build childhood memories must also include camping, hiking and kayaking. Kids learn how to set up and take down a tent, use a compass, build a fire, roast hot dogs and even make s’mores.
Each camp session includes a field trip to Weedon Island Preserve for an up-close-and-personal nature excursion among the mangroves to witness nature’s abundance.
“A lot of the kids know little about nature,” Cobb said. “We teach them what they (might) teach their kids someday.”
In addition to expanding their awareness and knowledge of nature, the staff instruct campers on how to fish – many for the first time. Others who are more experienced learn to become better anglers. Everyone learns how to tie a knot, cast a fishing net, clean fish and properly catch and release them.
Ramirez said it’s nice to see more experienced campers helping out first-timers with de-hooking, casting and identifying fish. Alex Preiss, 13, is one of them.
Attending fishing camp for the third year, he’s become an experienced angler.
“Sometimes (the new campers) help me out,” he said. “Other times I give them suggestions” on fishing gear and casting.
On day two of this year’s fishing camp Preiss reeled in a blue crab and a cow nose stingray measuring 3 feet, nose to tail.
Experiences like that and the lessons he’s learning excite him.
“I really like the coaches and speakers,” Preiss said. “They teach us a lot (about fishing).”
Nearly each day of camp, Ramirez brings in local fishing and outdoors experts to speak.
Bill Van Deman of Abyss Freediving shared not only stories, but also how to snorkel safely and properly use equipment. Other guest speakers during the summer included Capt. Michael Anderson of “The Reel Animals Fishing Show” and Capt. C.A. Richardson from “Flats Class TV.”
Ramirez hopes to host fishing camps during the three days of Thanksgiving week and spring break. Although details aren’t finalized, the upcoming camps will include camping and fishing derbies. Rates have yet to be determined.
Parents can register for any camp the parks department offers at www.hillsboroughcounty.org.
Freelance writer Elaine Speer can be reached at [email protected]