By Jack Gurner
ENID LAKE – If we can keep them on the bank, we can keep them off the streets.
That’s the philosophy of Sherry Hazelwood, Fishing Rodeo Coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. “I really feel that way and if we can reach one child, it’s worth it.”
Hazelwood was at the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery last Saturday to conduct one of the 40-plus fishing rodeos she holds across the state every year. “We try to provide a fishing experience in a controlled, safe setting for the kids,” she said.
Fisheries officials had stocked the pond adjacent to the Hatchery’s Visitor Education Center with catfish just for the rodeo. Although it was chilly when registration started at 7:30 a.m., the promise of a sunny day brought out over 100 young anglers.
“I consider it a blessing to get to work with these young people,” said Hazelwood, a 12-year veteran of the MDWFP who is also their 2009 Fisheries Employee of the Year.
“For some of the kids, it’s their first fish ever. We have given out hundreds of certificates for kids who have caught their first fish through the rodeos,” she added.
Hazelwood described an incident that occurred several years ago involving a group of disadvantaged youngsters from a children’s village. “I had a really gruff looking young man who got off the bus saying, ‘I don’t like to fish. This is no fun. I’m not going to do it.'”
She said that the young man really didn’t seem to know what he was doing. So, she asked him to help with a fishing rod that she said wasn’t working properly. It was a ruse to put the rod in his hands.
All of a sudden the line went taut. “He’d hooked a big one. He went from that big old sullen teenager to a squealing little boy catching his first fish. He laughed, he jumped, he squealed. He had a wonderful time.”
Hazelwood said that she gets a lot of support for the rodeo program from her bosses including Dr. Sam Polles, executive director MDWFP; Ron Garavelli, Director of Fisheries; and Tom Holman, Fishing Education and Outreach Program Coordinator.
She also has a special place in her heart for Water Vallian Bob Tyler, former Deputy Director of the MDWFP. “Coach Tyler has always been a very encouraging person. He has kept me going. If I got discouraged he was always saying, ‘Hang in there, gal.'”
Along with the youth rodeos, Hazelwood also works with seniors through her statewide nursing home rodeo. She said that many of the seniors have said that they never thought they would get to go fishing again. “It gives us a chance to give back to those special people who have given so much to us.”
She and Jessie Gurner, North Mississippi Fish Hatchery Visitor Education Center Director are working on plans for a wheelchair/nursing home rodeo to be held around the same time as the next youth fishing rodeo at the center in May 2010.
For more photos from the Fishing Rodeo, go to the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery Visitors and Educations Center website.