As a kid, April Claus looked forward to fishing with her father.
"Every night after dinner we went to the Allegheny River," she said. "Six years old, going up to Potter County, where the trout were so different from the river fish. I loved those days. It made me want to be a biologist."
Now director of environmental education at Sewickley's Fern Hollow Nature Center, biologist Claus learned two weeks ago that her hands-on fishing and aquatics education program had been awarded about $3,000 from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, part of nearly $90,000 in education grants the agency has distributed to 23 organizations this year.
Time constraints, electronic diversions, exaggerated fears of stranger danger and a general outdoors "ick factor" have resulted in a generation of kids and young adults who spend more time indoors than out. Outdoors skills and an appreciation of nature are learned behaviors, and initiatives like the commission's Education Grant Program help to bankroll the outdoor mentorship that many young people are not getting elsewhere.
"What we're finding is parents may not have grown up with the opportunity to go out on the water, and with both parents working now they may not be giving their kids that exposure," said Fish and Boat southwest region education director Denny Tubbs. "So we're giving [money for] equipment to groups that will. April is a fishing skills-certified instructor through the Fish and Boat Commission -- she has the same training my staff has. With the grant program, she has the equipment and can use it whenever she wants."
It's an improvement over the previous system in which Fish and Boat staffers loaned fishing and boating gear for individual programs.
"If I wanted to do a fishing program before, I had to call and ask them to come down and bring the rods, if they were available," said Claus.
Since the grant program began in 2006, Fish and Boat has provided 75 organizations with a total of $300,000 used to purchase fishing and boating gear and aquatic research equipment. Most of the money comes from the agency's main funding sources: fishing license sales, boat registration and a federal excise tax on fishing gear. Internal rules stipulate that funding for fishing gear may not be redirected to boating programs, and vice versa. This year the commission allocated $45,000 from each of its Fish and Boat education funds.
Outdoors retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods, REI-Pittsburgh, Gander Mountain and Cabela's, and local shops including Lock 3 Bait and Tackle, partner with Fish and Boat to give education fund recipients discounts on canoes, kayaks and fishing gear purchased with grant money.
This year, grants were awarded to the following southwest Pennsylvania programs:
• Fern Hollow Nature Center FUN (Fishing to Understand Nature), $2,900.
• Blacklick Valley School District Future Flyfishers, $4,000.
• North Allegheny School District Boating Safety in Adventure Education, $5,000.
• Zoological Society of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium Aquatic Resource Education Program, $4,000.
• Belle Vernon Area School District Outdoor Club, $5,000.
• Venture Outdoors Special Needs Anglers Program, $2,500.
• Central Greene School District Aquatic Resource and Fishing Eduction Program, $4,000.
• New Castle Power Squadron Public Safe Boating, $1,400.
• New Castle Community YMCA State Parks Adventure Camp, $3,000.
• Trout Team $4,000.
Fern Hollow's funding plan specifies the purchase of 24 Zebco rod-reel combos, rod storage holders, nets, gloves, rulers and forceps. Claus said the program helps to instill a sense of nature stewardship in elementary and middle school students, scouting troops and families by combining instruction of basic fishing skills with aquatic research.
"It's making observations about how the environment's doing while you're [fishing]," she said. "How's the dissolved oxygen in this lake or stream? Is that healthy?"
Claus said programs such as hers can help to reverse a nature-adverse trend sweeping over America.
"When children under the age of 12 are given a positive experience in nature, they're less likely to grow up eco-phobic, which is what we're seeing a lot," she said. "People are scared to go outside -- ooh, bugs or dirt or whatever. But when the kids see me touch a snake or a frog or a fish, they know it's OK for them to do it, too. Hopefully, they'll grow up being that way and it will go full circle back to their kids."
One beneficiary of Fern Hollow's fishing education program said has no problem with the outdoors "ick factor."
"I prefer being outside," said Felicity Moffett, 9, of Sewickley, casting a bobber and worm during a recent Fern Hollow fishing outing. "Sometimes I play video games, but I really think fishing is more fun. I get to go out with my family and my dad helps me and my sister while my mom watches. And sometimes she fishes, too."
John Hayes: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1991.