STAFFORD – Leaders of Stafford Township’s 20th Hooked on Fishing – Not Drugs Youth Fishing Derby easily identified their best catch of the day – reeling in 70 kids for an evening of fun.
The Stafford Township Municipal Alliance, Police Department, and Animal Control sponsored the 20th derby held on August 8.
Patrolman Jim Sutton said he’s enjoyed working the Youth Fishing Derby for 19 of the 20 years it’s been in existence. This year’s event moved from a Sunday morning to a weekday evening to coincide with the free band concert playing at the same location.
Timing is everything in life – and great casts and the right lure make all the difference in more than just the fishing world.
“This is a way to introduce kids to fishing and hopefully get them hooked,” said Sutton. “Obviously, we’d like to see that instead of drugs.”
The Hooked on Fishing-Not Drugs originated in Stafford as a state-funded program. According to Sutton, New Jersey’s Fish and Wildlife division used to come in with a big truck before the event and release fish into the lake.
While the state program still exists, limited funding does not include stocking waters with fish. However, that didn’t deter Stafford Township from continuing with the event at Manahawkin Lake.
“There’s bass in here,” Sutton shared. “A kid just walked over with a pickerel. There are sunnies and bluegills as well. There’s nothing huge, and the kids all know they have to release what they catch.”
Eddie Cammarata, 4, attended the fishing derby with his parents, Mary and Chris. The blonde-haired boy made one of the first catches of the day with a sunny he threw back in. Meanwhile, the bait seemed quite intriguing as Eddie opened his hands to reveal a squirming minnow.
A turtle decided to go after bait on a hook, and Eddie picked it up after adults managed to set it free. This wasn’t Eddie’s first introduction to fishing and enjoying the outdoors.
“We live on a lagoon on Beach Haven West,” explained Mary. “During COVID, in particular, we spent a great deal of time outside fishing.”
Other youngsters at the derby were already hooked on fishing, like Ryder Symons, age 5. He and his father, Jason, sat by the water’s edge as they waited for a bite.
Jason said they go fishing on their boat at least once a week. Ryder’s favorite catch was a baby shark they threw back into the water.
Two little girls sat on a blanket set up by their mom, Ashley Ordermann. Reyleigh, 7 and Elena, 5, seemed more fascinated with something else as Ashley cast out with her son, 8-year-old Cole.
“The girls are more interested in playing with the bait,” said Ashley. “That’s the best part of the whole thing to them.”
At just 2 ½ years old, Julia Hall appeared to be the youngest child to participate in this year’s fishing derby. Julia fashioned the bait bag into a backpack so she could mirror her father’s look. Julia gave her dad a good chase away from the water before settling beneath a shady tree.
As Phil Hall caught up with his grinning daughter, he shared how the two prepared for the derby.
“We actually came out to practice yesterday,” Phil Hall said. “She got a little one yesterday.”
Stafford Township’s Youth Fishing Derby is not competitive, and organizers credited a local business with their role in helping make the event a success.
Tony’s Bait and Tackle on East Bay Avenue in Manahawkin began donating to the derby more than a decade ago.
“We supply the bait for the kids that come here for the Hooked on Fishing,” shared Karl Sillitoe of Tony’s Bait and Tackle. “We supply them with nightcrawlers and live minnows.”
Sillitoe said he previously worked for Stafford Township and decided to contribute to the fishing derby when he first learned about it fourteen years ago.
The concept of hooking kids on something other than drugs isn’t just some big fish story. More than thirty years ago, a Florida teen wrote a letter to the Future Fisherman Foundation (FFF) saying fishing gave him something to do other than hang out with his friends who used drugs.
Matthew Deakins further revealed he’d lost a buddy to an overdose. Deakins’ outreach became the impetus for a national campaign to hook kids on fishing instead of drugs.