The wonder in a kid’s eyes

Jeff Gilliland Staff columnist

Jeff Gilliland Staff columnist

It struck me when we pulled into the Rocky Fork State Park Campground last weekend for the annual Kids Trout Derby and I could see from a distance that the fishing area was packed. I should have known from past experience to show up earlier, but there was a yard to mow and such, and we arrived a couple minutes before the 1 p.m. start time.

As we exited the car and headed toward the netted area where 1,625 rainbow trout had been stocked, it was funny to see the apprehension on my grandson and a nephew’s face because there didn’t seem to be a single place for one, let alone two, kids to squeeze in around the large netted area.

As things turned out, some people were kind enough to squeeze a little closer and give the boys a small place to fish. It also turned out that it wouldn’t have mattered when we showed up. One person told me he brought his family to the state park at 10 a.m. to get a good fishing spot, but the area was already lined with chairs three hours before the derby was supposed to start.

It reminded me of the very first year the Highland County Rod and Gun Club, along with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Division of Wildlife, put the event on more than a dozen years ago. My sons were little then and they were excited to catch something other than the carp – and occasional catfish, soft-shell turtle or bluegill – we caught at the permanent camping spot we had back then at Long’s Retreat.

The netted area at Rocky Fork was much smaller that first year, and although we showed up ahead of the designated starting time, there was absolutely nowhere to fish. Someone suggested that we could fish outside the netted area, but the boys didn’t like that idea much, it was kind of blustery, and we packed up and headed home.

It might have been a bit of a disappointment to us that day, but over the years the event has provided literally thousands of kids with a day they will likely long remember.

And that’s what occurred to me as we pulled in to the campground last Saturday – that somebody needs to give all the people putting this thing on a pat on the back.

One of the organizers told me that close to 450 kids registered this year. But that doesn’t count all the kids who didn’t register, or the parents. My grandson and nephew didn’t register, some of the kids they were fishing alongside said they hadn’t registered either, and that was from a very small sampling.

It may not be exaggerating a whole lot to say that 700 to 800 people turned out for the event, and have for several years.

I was also snapping photos for The Times-Gazette at the derby. One of the kids I took photos of was 6-year-old Ashton Jackson. He’d come from Dayton to take part in the event with his Hillsboro area grandpa, Robert Earnest, and Ashton caught his first fish ever, plus a second one.

I remember my very first fishing expedition pretty well. It was with my paternal grandparents, somewhere at a farm pond, with a cane pole, and we caught lots of fish. I was probably younger than Ashton.

Another time when I was a youngster, a man from church took a brother and me fishing at Rocky Fork. He was married, but the couple didn’t have kids, and I think he just wanted to share his love of fishing with someone. Again, we caught lots of fish. I specifically remember a gigantic gold fish, and yes, I later learned they’re actually carp. We threw that one back, but took lots of other fish back to town and cleaned them in the man’s basement.

Those fun memories linger with me like the back of my hand, and judging from the smile beaming across Ashton’s face after he caught his first fish, it will be a long time before he forgets last Saturday with his grandpa.

It makes me wonder how many other kids have had similar experiences at the trout derby.

When the event started it was mainly just for fishing. But over the years shotgun shooting and archery have been added. Each kid, and parents, too, get a lunch of a hot dog, chips and a drink, and I’m certain many had more than one. The first 500 kids that registered also received a free prize. Most of them were fishing lures, but there were other prizes like tackle boxes, rod and reel combos, T-shirts, chairs and more. The bait was free, too, and 12 of the trout were tagged. Anyone that caught one would have received a $100 bill.

For the first time that anyone can remember, no one caught a tagged fish this year. Most years two or three are caught, but one year seven of the tagged fish were hauled in. Local businesses and individuals sponsor the tagged fish. The money from the ones not caught helps offset the cost of the event.

While I was watching the trout being stocked into the lake two days before this year’s event, an Amish man, or maybe Mennonite, walked up and wanted to know where he paid his $100 to sponsor a fish. Later, I asked one of the gun club members, John Kidder, if the man owned a business or something.

No, John said, he’s been bringing his kids to the derby for several years and they’ve had so much fun, he just wanted to donate $100 to sponsor a fish this year.

It’s event like the Kids Trout Derby that make our community special. Because fishing and hunting have provided some adults a lifetime of enjoyment, they want to pass that joy on to another generation. So early each April, they spend lots of time and their own money to do just that.

It’s a neat thing to see kids catch their first fish. I suppose the men and women who put the event on get all the thanks they need when they see those scenes replayed year after year each spring. But a few kind words never hurt either. So if you’re one of the thousands of people who have taken advantage of the trout derby over the years, and you run into one those people somewhere, give them a pat on the back and tell them thanks. They certainly deserve it.

Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.

Jeff Gilliland Staff columnist Gilliland Staff columnist