Kids help stock lake, anticipate fishing
Pittsburgh — Brady Watkins, 12, hauls a net full of trout from a hatchery truck and tosses the fish into North Park Lake with a gleeful sense of accomplishment.
He and his four brothers are helping the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission stock the popular Allegheny County impoundment for the opening day of trout season April 2.
Despite the bitter cold of a blustery March day, the Watkins kids and a gaggle of their friends could think of no better way to spend a Tuesday afternoon than embarking on an outdoors adventure.
“It’s exciting! Now I can’t wait to go fishing,” says Brady, who also enjoys hiking, exploring creeks, and hunting. He harvested his first Canada goose last year.
Emily Cagwin brought her four children, ages two to 10, on the promise of unstructured playtime. Like the Watkins kids, they are homeschooled, and spending time in nature is a part of their curriculum.
“We do something outside once a week, but not in a playground,” says Cagwin, who watches her kids wade the edge of the lake to nudge dazed trout to deeper water. Even six-year-old Mava, splashing in her boots, was undeterred by the chilly temperatures.
“We let them see what’s around them in the natural world and they figure things out on their own,” Cagwin says.
A big part of the day’s excitement was that kids were joined by law enforcement officers – dozens from the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and suburban municipalities – who used the stocking to launch a youth fishing program. Through a newly-formed group – Allegheny County Communities and Police Together – their goal is to build positive bonds with kids through shared outdoors experiences.
“What better way than with fishing,” says Joe Risher, the Allegheny County crime prevention and community relations officer who organized the outing with state waterways conservation officer Mike Johnson.
Although planning is underway for a fishing event at North Park May 7, the stocking was “a neat little kicker to get the ball rolling,” says Johnson, whose agency is constantly seeking new ways to recruit the next generation of angler.
Cagwin thinks they’re off to a good start. “The kids are loving this,” she says. “They love handling the fish. And getting to help police makes it even more special. How often does a kid get to do that?”
Each officer paired up with a child to carry nets loaded with trout to the lake. For some of the men and women in blue, it was a brand new experience.
Tyler Chandler, a rookie officer with Crescent Township in Beaver County, has never fished and gave little thought to how lakes are stocked. “This lets me see behind the magic,” he says.
Pittsburgh community resource officer David Shifren routinely works with youths in a chess program he established in city libraries, and was game for a new outreach opportunity.
“I’m a Brooklyn-born kid myself, so stocking fish is a new experience for me,” he says. “But, as with chess, it seems like a great way to interact with kids outside the way police normally do.”
Pittsburgh community engagement officer Dominic Maggio is looking forward to the May fishing event, even though he has never wet a line. “I’ll learn as the kids are learning,” he says. “What’s important is that interactions like this build a sense of trust, and kids can view cops in a different light – as not just a badge and a uniform.”
The Watkins boys’ father, Josh, eagerly signed on to the stocking initiative both as a lieutenant with Shaler Township police and a sportsman.
“I was drawn to the outdoors as a kid because it was such a peaceful place to be,” he says. “Kids today need that. They need less screen time and more outdoors time. They’re our future. We need to be raising good people.”
Police are eager to engage like-minded organizations in their mission, including Allison Park Sportsmen’s Club, which has agreed to provide mentors for May 7.
Police also hope to involve Let’s Go Fishing, a program for Pittsburgh youths founded in 2017 by Simon Spencer, who also is a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council for Hunting, Fishing, and Conservation.
He called the cops-and-kids initiative “a good start” toward improving outreach to kids in the inner city, where resources are especially limited. Youths can’t get to most lakes and streams, and there’s an absence of adult mentors, Spencer says.
“Community engagement programs are great, particularly when law enforcement initiates them. But, for us, transportation – or getting the funding for transportation – to places like North Park is a big issue.”
Spencer added, “We fish at Lake Carnegie in Highland Park because it’s a lake that our kids can walk to.”
Spencer is hopeful that police will help fill the need for mentors, and has invited them and the Allison Park sportsmen to a fishing derby at Lake Carnegie, a Pittsburgh park impoundment, April 28.
“If we can’t get our kids to the suburbs, maybe we can bring more resources to the city,” he says. “Like I said, it’s a start.”