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Henckel Column: Who's nuts? Not me and my dog
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Mark Henckel MONTANA OUTDOORS

If you ever want to hold a kids fishing day, contact Earl Kelsey. He'll tell you about all the mistakes you can make. And then he'll tell you how much fun you'll have.

It was 1997 when Kelsey, of Basin, Wyo., dreamed of holding a fishing day for kids in the area. That wasn't one of the mistakes.

"At that time, I felt that there was a need for someone to provide the kids of this area with a chance to learn how to fish and enjoy the fun of the outdoors," he said last week, in the wake of his seventh annual Eagles Kids Fishing Day, held May 10 at Basin.

"In our area, we have many single-parent families who don't have the resources to buy fishing poles and bait. A lot of them don't have the money to run 30 or 40 miles to a fishing spot. Many of the kids had never been fishing before," he said. "I didn't know anything about how to go about doing a kids fishing day, but like they say, fools step in where angels fear to tread."

Kelsy, an active member of the Eagles Club, Cloud Peak Aerie 3086, went to the club for sponsorship and got the go-ahead. He contacted the Trout Unlimited Chapter in Worland and got some old spinning rods and reels. He borrowed more rods here. He borrowed more rods there. He hit up his friends to help.

Kelsey set a date at the local pond where water is held for irrigation for the town's lawns and gardens. It's a couple acres in size and has a population of perch, carp and suckers. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department also stocked some trout in there.

That's when the mistakes began.

"I anticipated 50 to 60 people," he laughed. "My God, we registered 200 kids. We also had 40 to 60 adults.

"We had no bathroom facilities," Kelsey said.

"We tried to make it a contest. That's a bad one there. Have you ever watched a small child cry because the first fish they ever caught wasn't long enough didn't weigh enough to win a prize?

"We didn't plan enough food for a crowd that size. A hurried trip back to the grocery store and we were able to feed most — but not all — who attended," he said. "It was a real learning experience."

In the years since then, Kelsey has corrected the mistakes. There are portable restroom facilities now. It's just a kids fishing day, not a contest, a competition or a derby. And they lay in a big supply of food for the free lunch.

"We have enough help so that there is always someone available to teach the kids how to cast out their lines, unhook fish, untangle lines, replace hooks and bobbers," he said. "That way, even a kid who has never fished before can have a day of fun."

Rather than winning prizes for fish, the bigger prizes — generally rod and reel combos — are won in drawings.

"I make sure every child that attends gets something," he said. "It might be a package of sinkers, bobbers, a lure, a stringer — some kind of fishing equipment."

Wyoming Game and Fish supports the effort, he said, and annually has six people at the kids fishing day — game wardens Bill Robertson of Greybull and Matt Lentsch of Worland, Greybull biologist Tom Easterly, Cody staffer Allison Wildman, Cody regional fisheries manager Steve Yekel and Janet Milek, who supports kids fishing days out of Cheyenne. Game and Fish staff issue kids their own official complimentary Wyoming fishing license — even though they're not old enough to need a fishing license.

About 10 Eagles members help out each year. Kelsey's friends are always there. And donations from the Eagles and businesses like Wyoming Custom Tackle provide spoons, spinners and jigs for the kids to keep the fishing day going.

"Food distributors have donated, too. They're great. People will bend over backwards to help you with a kids fishing day," Kelsey said. "This year, through donations and the value of the goods I had for this year, it was just under $2,000 between the tackle, the food, the prizes. I only had to come up with enough money to pay for postage, thank-you cards, an ad in the newspaper, photos and film developing through the Eagles. The rest was donated through the generosity of the people."

While Kelsey has worked out most of the bugs involved in putting on a kids fishing day, he still hasn't quite gotten the weather under control.

This year's event drew 66 youngsters on a day he described by saying, "The weather was just plain awful. It was about 35 degrees with a 30 mph wind, mist, right on the verge of raining."

But, he added, "Those kids sat there shivering, but they wouldn't leave. They really wanted to fish. I've got great admiration for those kids. They just wanted to fish."

Kelsey said anyone who wants advice on how to put on a kids fishing day — and avoid some of his mistakes — shouldn't hesitate to give him a call at (307) 568-2983 or send him an e-mail at: judyk@tctwest.net.

He also advised either contacting Janet Milek at Wyoming Game and Fish at (307) 777-4600 or, in Montana, contact Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Dave Hagengruber at (406) 444-9736 or dhagengruber@state.mt.us for their help and guidance.

"It's a great thing to do," Kelsey said. "Kids are important. And if you get them fishing, you get them off the streets. You see their smiles when they catch a fish and it just makes you feel good."

Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted at 657-1395 or at henckel@billingsgazette.com.

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