July 13, 2022
Jim Harris Managing Editor Arkansas Wildlife Magazine
LITTLE ROCK – The Fish Camp program run by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Education Division has seen big growth since starting in 2013, from a couple of free events based out of Little Rock to several camps held throughout the state in 2022, with more anticipated in coming years. This season’s schedule wraps up later this month with a three-day Fly-fishing Camp at Dry Run Creek off the Norfork Dam tailwater in north Arkansas and a three-day Fish Camp at JFK Park next to Greers Ferry Dam in Heber Springs, in north-central Arkansas.
The Dry Run Creek camp scheduled for July 20-22 has 10 available spots for youths ages 12-15 years old. Click here to register for the Dry Run Creek camp. The JFK Park camp at Greers Ferry is scheduled for July 27-29 and is for kids ages 10-15. The camp is being organized by former teacher Amanda Brogdon in Heber Springs and is held in partnership with Friends of the Little Red River, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arkansas Master Naturalists. The camps are day camps only, thus no overnight stays, so youths are expected to travel to the camps each day – hence the push to spread the camps to large areas around the state, particularly with AGFC Nature Centers or facilities, to draw and accommodate day campers.
“The Fish Camp program has had significant growth, especially when you throw COVID in there,” J.J. Gladden, assistant chief in the Education Division, said. “We did two virtual camps during COVID just to not lose our momentum.”
Fish Camps were held this year either during spring break or after school let out in conjunction with the Education Division’s nature centers in Fort Smith, Jonesboro, Springdale and Columbus, in southwest Arkansas. Gladden said events were scheduled to prepare participants for June’s Free Fishing Weekend as well to bring attention to angling for youths. Where Gladden and his staff could find pavilions or other facilities near water for holding a three-day educational event, Fish Camps sprang up in such locales, such as El Dorado’s Maddox Pond last month.
“Ten years ago, (the AGFC’s) Hollie Sanders hosted the beginning fish camp based out of the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center, and two years later a team started the camp out of Heber Springs at JFK Park,” Gladden said. “We were just getting our feet wet with the program. I went to the camp up at Heber Springs and saw the depth of information provided and the impact that these camps can have on kids. They go through every stage of fisheries. There is so much detail packed into three or four days, and the kids see what goes into having a healthy fishery.”
Camps include anywhere from 10 to 30 students, depending on the camp location, Gladden said, adding that a smaller group guarantees more one-on-one attention for student success. The nature center in Little Rock’s River Market district will usually host up to 20 students for beginning fishing and up to 10 students for the youth fly-fishing camp. Fish Camp is typically 6 hours a day and can run anywhere from three to five days.
Sanders, an assistant chief in the Education Division, says, “This immersive camp experience really connects youth to the benefits of angling, and the extended knowledge they learn not only helps them with angling success but it also inspires them to be conservation-minded citizens in the future.”
Gladden noted that depending on the location, “each camp is different, each place is unique and each has its limitation.” For example, in Jonesboro’s Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center scheduled eight Thursday camps in a row, which works well in that community. The fishing habitat can also differ depending on the camp location. “The trout water experience at Dry Run Creek or JFK Park will be different than the flat-water lakes and ponds in El Dorado and at Grandview,” he added.
The goal, Gladden said, is to eventually have camps in every part of Arkansas “and to continue that growth we will be looking to hand off these camps to partners.”
The pavilions at Dry Run Creek will serve as a base for the July 20-22 Fly-fishing Camp, marking the first Fish Camp held there, and will include a tour of the national trout hatchery there. Graduates of the camp will receive a discount coupon for a guided fly-fishing trip in the area.
Youths attending the final camp at Heber Springs will learn about fishing below the Greers Ferry Dam in the tailwater that is the Little Red River, a trout angler’s paradise. The AGFC’s area Fisheries biologists will talk about the creation of the dam and the fishery today – how upstream and the waters behind the dam are a completely different ecosystem from downstream, Gladden said. “They learn general fish identification, the habitats that certain species live in, what macroinvertebrates are there,” he continued. “We partner with the federal side and take them through the (Greers Ferry National) fish hatchery and how trout are raise and how we stock them.”
If parents want to plan ahead for next year and involve their children in the Fish Camps, the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center advertises upcoming spring or summer camps, not to mention an array of events held all year long there. The agfc.com website will also be a site to visit to plan for 2023 camps.
“We have a staff of five,” Gladden said of the Fishing Education portion within the AGFC’s Education Division. “We have people in education, and throughout the agency that are avid anglers. With all of us working as a team with our partners we are able to support each of the camps across the state this year. We just want to equip people to have what they need, the skills and equipment, to keep fishing afterwards.”