My first important coming-of-age moment was my 12th birthday. On that date I was eligible for my first Junior Hunting License.
I remember the proud moment my dad pinned it to my hunting vest -- proof as I stepped into the woods with my single-shot .22 that the state and my family trusted me with the first adult responsibility of my life.
A new Mentored Youth Fishing program, including a voluntary Youth Fishing License and Mentored Youth Fishing Days on designated waters, is intended in part to elicit the same enthusiasm for fishing.
"The main goal is to help get kids excited about fishing," said John Arway, executive director of the state Fish and Boat Commission. "It's a different experience for them than the traditional opening day."
The youth fishing program is fundementally different than the Game Commission's expanding Mentored Youth Hunting program, which permits unlicensed kids accompanied by licensed adults to hunt under specific circumstances. Under Pennsylvania law, children under 16 with no adult supervision can already fish for free. The new mentor program is an attempt by the state to encourage experienced adults to help kids to fish.
Arway said a pilot program, held last year to test the youth fishing days, was a big success. Nearly 90 percent of kids who registered participated, a majority of mentors were family members and 80 percent of the mentors said they were satisfied with the experience.
Two Mentored Youth Fishing Days are planned: March 22 on 12 designated waters in Southeast Pennsylvania, and 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. April 12 on 29 designated waters throughout the rest of the state (including in Allegheny County, North Park Lake; Butler, Harbar Acres Lake; Cambria, Lake Rowena; Fayette, Dunlap Creek Lake; Somerset, Laurel Hill Lake; Washington, Canonsburg Lake; and Westmoreland, Mammoth Lake and lower Twin Lakes).
At Approved Trout Waters Open To Year-Round Fishing lakes that are also designated as Mentored Youth Fishing Day locations, anglers participating in the youth program may harvest two trout.
To participate in the Mentored Youth Fishing Days, kids must have a free PFBC-issued permit or a voluntary youth fishing license, both available at www.GoneFishingPA.com or wherever fishing licenses are sold. Kids must be accompanied by an angler age 16 or older with a valid fishing license and trout-salmon permit.
"The youth fishing days, a week before the opening of the regional and statewide trout seasons, opens up another day of fishing," said Arway. "It gives kids first crack at the fish before it's open to other anglers."
As the program expands, said Arway, he envisions fishing clubs and watershed organizations pitching in at Mentored Youth Fishing Day festivals with workshops, vendors and other family and outdoors-related activities at the designated lakes. With the program having been recently approved by the Fish and Boat board, the first installment will be less developed: a hot chocolate and hot dog vendor will be at Lake Rowena.
The voluntary youth fishing license program is primarily about getting kids out fishing, but Arway said as the agency is strapped for cash, there's also a revenue-generating element. Of the $2.70 cost, 70 cents goes to the PALS license vending system and $2 is earmarked for funding youth fishing programs in the state. For every youth license sold, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will direct additional funding, nearly $5, to Fish and Boat under provisions of the Dingle-Johnson Sport Fishing Restoration Act.
Arway said he has opposed revenue-generating suggestions that would mandate youth fishing licenses.
"I personally believe that's a deterrent," he said. "The voluntary youth license accomplishes the same goal. Plus, kids like that kind of thing. [For] my grandson, I made up a fake license for him so he could wear it when we go fishing. We think kids will be excited to get their first license."
Frank Peterson, president of the Virginia-based Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, home of the national Take Me Fishing campaign, said the new program has much potential.
"We're thrilled to see programs like Pennsylvania's Mentored Youth Fishing Days [that] encourage adults to share the experience of the outdoors and fishing with youth who may be new to the sport," he said. "This program has the potential to open doors, particularly since 90 percent of adult outdoor enthusiasts are introduced to nature-based activities between the ages of 5 and 18. It is our hope that programs like this will instill a love of fishing, inspire participation in boating and engage the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts."
Cultivating a new generation of Pennsylvania anglers is crucial, said Arway. While the Game Commission is recently more comfortable with new money from industrial leases on State Game Lands and federal Pittman-Robertson funding from a spike in gun and ammunition sales, Arway said Fish and Boat is still struggling to meet a $9 million employee pension bill looming in 2016.