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Hooked on Fishing

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Jesse Gardner is a teacher. It's not his job, but his gift.

When Gardner is finished with his regular job he teaches fishing. How to fish, where to fish, when to fish and how to clean fish. He covers it all, and his clients are generally kids. When asked which he loves more, fishing or kids, Gardner is hard pressed.

"I can't really give you a straight answer," he responds candidly, after a long pause. "I love both!"

It's that love of both that has inspired Jesse and his wife, Shirley, to create a grass roots program called "Hooked on Fishing" in the Kansas City area. It's targeted at inner-city youth, but their aim is broader.

"There is a real need for a program like this... to benefit all kinds of boys and girls," he says. "There are many classes for adults, but none for kids. If kids are exposed to fishing they'll enjoy it."

Gardner has been devoted to fishing and kids for a long time, but it was a close friend and fellow bass-club member who convinced him to channel his devotion into this program.

John Burns was one of Gardner's best friends and biggest champions, having seen him captivate audiences with his fishing expertise, and when Burns was dying, he made a last request of his friend: take your message to the streets. Specifically, Burns wanted Gardner to focus on inner-city kids. Gardner promised his friend he would, and thus was born "Hooked on Fishing."

"John always believed that fishing was a great way to reach kids," recalled Gardner. "He was concerned about their future. Our program is exactly what he had in mind, and he believed it would make a difference."

Actually the Gardners' effort is modeled on a successful and well-funded program in Texas. This one, though, is fueled almost by their energy alone. They supply the hands-on instruction, and they recruit other volunteers as well as sponsors, which so far has been the hardest part. But they don't mind shouldering such a large responsibility. It's a labor of love for this pair, having raised two of their own children.

"Once we got started, we soon discovered it was going to take a lot more money than we believed. You've got to have school buses, equipment and a place to hold classes.

"But the thing is, the kids are out there. They're in boys' clubs, girls' clubs . . . everywhere. It's just a matter of being properly funded."

The first thing the Gardners emphasize is that the program is not just an excuse for kids to go fishing. The fish academy, Gardner points out, is voluntary but includes a six-month commitment. It begins with classroom sessions several times a week. It's only after the students have a thorough overview that they head to water.

Gardner's first lesson, species identification, is followed by lessons in equipment, technique and even job opportunities in the field of natural resources. He likes to point to the Conservation Department as a prime example of opportunity, especially for minority kids.

"We don't want to make this simply a two-week course, because you'd lose the kids," adds Shirley Gardner. "We want to make it a running course and maybe even have the kids who go through it turn around and help other kids in the program. You have to keep them involved and interested. And the longer you can hold their attention doing different things, the better."

Gardner's mission is simple. He wants to introduce kids, who normally would not be exposed to the sport, to the pleasures that he has enjoyed for most of his 52 years. And in some instances, he also wants to divert them away from the street dangers of drugs and crime. He's living proof that fishing can be just that powerful.

"Fishing took me off the streets," he said. "And now I want to give something back. If I can reach a couple kids, that's my reward."

Gardner spent much of his career as a physical therapist, although he has flirted with making fishing his full-time pursuit. He has done well on the tournament circuit, where a major boat company sponsors him. Additionally, the Gardners operate a custom fishing rod business out of their home.

Gardner is forever an ambassador of the sport, always available to talk to kids about its magic.

"These kids should find out about more than just football and basketball. Fishing is something that will last them all their lives. Right now there aren't a lot of minorities involved in the business of fishing or natural resources. But you know what? There's no reason there shouldn't--or couldn't--be. We have to educate them."

And what better hooks than Jesse and Shirley Gardner?

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