Angling in a Pandemic: Aquatic Education during COVID-19

Will Mundhenke, SCDNR

Editor: Hank Hershey

In February 2020, after stints with the National Park Service and South Carolina State Museum, I applied for a position with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, as a Fisheries Technician with the Aquatic Education division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. I made the leap from my comfortable managerial position overseeing museum education into a career that brought me back into the outdoors. Little did I know that a pandemic would close the state in just a few short weeks. Stewardship of the outdoors from the indoors was the task at hand as we all waded into uncertain waters.

What is Aquatic Education? Friends, family, and former colleagues assume, “You just take kids fishing for a living?” That can certainly be an important part of the job as we strive to create future conservationists, however, it is an oversimplification. Within SCDNR, Aquatic Education manages several programs geared at building the bridge from the outdoors to the current or future recreationist. These programs are include: Family Fishing Clinics, Trout in the Classroom, Youth Fishing Rodeos, Fishing Tackle Loaner Program, Youth Bass Fishing Leagues, and the newly launched Black Bass Slam. Each is uniquely designed to engage the public. It might be a family’s first fish or perhaps a college road trip seeking each species of Carolina black bass. These educational experiences help build better stewards and cement memories that will last a lifetime. What happens when these programs shut down in the spring, right when everyone is yearning to get outside? How we shifted to adapt to COVID-19 revealed new methods of reaching further into our outdoor communities.

“Virtual” Family Fishing Clinics

Family Fishing Clinics are one of the most popular programs in our state. They teach the foundational aspects of fishing with the goal of creating that first positive impression that forms a lifelong angler. We go over knot tying, rod assembly, rigging, fish identification and handling, live baiting, and a bit of conservation discussion before heading out together for guided fishing. These programs are run by Aquatic Education and a significant force of volunteers called Certified Fishing Instructors. When the pandemic hit, clinics were canceled in droves as we all attempted to fight back against the virus.

Starting with live bait provides an opportunity to discuss natural food sources for fish and increases the likelihood of angler success. Additionally, it pays homage to how most of us began fishing. Photo Courtesy of K. Jackson

To continue providing this free resource to the public, we crafted a virtual version of our Family Fishing Clinic. Instructors took to virtual platforms and educated participants over video on the various aspects of a usual clinic. Registered guests picked up a sanitized “clinic kit” which included a rod, reel, line, rigging, and a casting plug. The virtual platform worked as we all learned to fish from our living rooms, dining room tables, and makeshift offices. In place of guided fishing, we recommended public access points across the state and offered prizes for those who sent in pictures of their fishing experience.

To continue providing this free resource to the public, we crafted a virtual version of our Family Fishing Clinic. Instructors took to virtual platforms and educated participants over video on the various aspects of a usual clinic. Registered guests picked up a sanitized “clinic kit” which included a rod, reel, line, rigging, and a casting plug. The virtual platform worked as we all learned to fish from our living rooms, dining room tables, and makeshift offices. In place of guided fishing, we recommended public access points across the state and offered prizes for those who sent in pictures of their fishing experience.

A successful day of fishing with Outdoor Afro. Groups such as these are the key to building a sustainable future of fishing for everyone. Photo Courtesy of K. Jackson

Trout in the Zoo           

Trout in the Classroom (TIC) is a national educational program across the United States administered jointly by Trout Unlimited and state natural resource agencies. In South Carolina, this program is administered by SCDNR with support from the Saluda River, Mountain Bridge, and Chattooga River Trout Unlimited chapters. Between 25-30 schools receive a 55-gallon tank each Fall and raise rainbow trout from eggs to fingerlings. All the while learning about ecosystems, habitat, anatomy, and the world of a trout. The program culminates in a trout-release day coupled with a macroinvertebrate study. COVID-19 canceled the 2020-2021 TIC year in most states.

In an effort to continue this opportunity of fisheries exposure in schools, we reached out to a trusted partner in Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. The idea was to have a single tank with a livestream video focused to demonstrate the trout growing from eggs to fingerlings at the zoo. Schools could stream the tank throughout the week coupled with a weekly program titled Trout Tuesday. These weekly lessons would be taught by SCDNR and local community partners such as the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control, City of Columbia, Richland County Soil and Water Conservation District, and Trout Unlimited. Lessons focused on trout anatomy, habitat, watersheds, angling conservation, poetry and trout literature, and macroinvertebrates among other programs.

            Just a few months earlier, these trout were eggs at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. They are the product of a first ever virtual Trout in the Classroom and they represent resiliency and creativity. Photo Courtesy of T. Main, SCDNR

Trout in the Zoo provided SCDNR and teachers across South Carolina a unique opportunity to continue an adapted version of Trout in the Classroom amid a pandemic. Lessons were recorded and teachers reported building lesson plans around the programs throughout the week. The virtual platform allowed us to digitally connect with these students, take their questions, and make that all important contact between student and the outdoors.

The culmination of months of hard work. Each community member received a cup of trout to place in the Saluda River. Students across the state livestreamed the event with us so they could connect from many miles away. The fingerling rainbow trout are stocked in the Lower Saluda River in downtown Columbia, SC. They will join other reproducing trout in one of the southernmost reproducing trout fisheries. Photos Courtesy of T. Main, SCDNR

The work does not stop when the office closes. SCDNR’s mission is to serve as the principal advocate for and steward of South Carolina’s natural resources. That mission does not have a pause button, even for a pandemic. As we begin returning to a semblance of normalcy, there are lessons learned from the “new normal” that are worth carrying forward. Offering in-person and virtual options grants opportunities and connections to a broader population. Connecting to everyone requires new strategies beyond the traditional fisheries program such as hybrid clinics or a virtual trout tank hosted by the community. These are just two examples of adapting to the moment and conservationists supporting each other. Putting in the work to bring more diversity in our stewardship will pay significant dividends in the future. After all, it is our resource.   

About the Author:

Will Mundhenke is an avid turkey hunter, fly angler, and historian. His passions all intersect in his home in upstate South Carolina. follow him on instagram (https://www.instagram.com/rangerwillgarrett/) for fun and educational content, and for more information on his work check out their website: https://www.dnr.sc.gov/aquaticed/

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