‘Family Fun Days’ events win national award from American Fisheries Society

LITTLE ROCK — The president of the American Fisheries Society’s Fisheries Administration Section personally delivered a prestigious award to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Family and Community Fishing Program earlier this summer.

The program’s Family Fun Day events, which were started last year, garnered the 2018 Sport Fish Restoration Outstanding Project in Aquatic Education. The award, according to AFS Fisheries Administration Section president Joe Larscheidwhen he addressed the AGFC at its late June monthly meeting, is intended to both highlight the importance and effectiveness of the Sport Fish Restoration program and recognize excellence in fisheries management, research and education.

“Was I surprised at us winning the award? Definitely. I wasn’t expecting that,” Maurice Jackson, coordinator of the AGFC’s Family and Community Fishing Program, said. “They only give out one of those awards nationally each year. Mr. Larscheid, when he spoke to the Commission, said that from the way the events were organized and implemented, it was one of the best examples of R3 he’d ever seen."

“R3” is a national initiative among outdoors agencies referring to a focus to “recruit, retain and reactivate.” In local parlance and with respect to the Family and Community Fishing Program, Jackson said, that would mean: getting more people of all ages to Arkansas’s lakes and streams to fish, having them return again, and attracting others who used to fish to participate again. Jackson said he and Clint Coleman, the FCFP’s assistant coordinator, began planning the first Family Fun Days in 2017. They put them into operation last year at four larger Arkansas cities, each in a different quadrant of the state, while using paid social media advertising and bringing Jessica Feltz, the AGFC’s human dimensions specialist in the Fisheries Division, on board to survey families about their experience. The adult heads of families who participated in the in-depth surveys became eligible to win outdoors-oriented excursions provided by the AGFC.

“We just did what we thought was right for the people,” Jackson said. “We researched different ways to outreach. And the surveys that Jessica did, having someone who can do a survey, seeing whether or not it worked, helped tremendously from the human dimensions side of it. R3 is what we designed the program under, those categories of recruiting, retaining and reactivating.”

The Family Fun Days, Jackson stressed, were not only about fishing. He added the hunting component of archery and BB gun shooting, as well as just being on the water through paddling. The Family and Community Fishing program involved many aspects of the AGFC in its efforts, not just fIsheries and the stocking of ponds with catfish, but the communications and enforcement divisions, along with the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation. Also, Arkansas Hunters Feeding the Hungry prepared wild game for the attendees.

“It was a group effort, for helping with the program and for getting the word out on the program and making it a success,” he said. “And, we used both English and Spanish speaking media through our social media advertising to reach an age group that had never been reached before by the agency.”

The American Fisheries Society took notice. The AGFC’s director, Pat Fitts, and assistant director Chris Colclasure, along with now retired director Caroline Cone, nominated the program’s Family Fun Day events for the national award.

Family Fun Days were held with large turnouts at local ponds in Texarkana, Pine Bluff, Springdale and West Memphis. “Now, when we work with the cities and organizations, we’re noticing they are already beginning to schedule new, related events on their own,” Jackson said. “Pine Bluff now wants to bring on water activities. West Memphis is doing the same thing, implementing some water activity simply because we introduced them to it.

“The end result of us doing those Family Fun Days for the communities is them taking it on for themselves, saying, ‘Yes, this is something we ought to be doing for our community.’”

Jackson specifically noted an instance in West Memphis’s TIlden Park where a preschooler was begging his mother, Gwendolyn Jones, to be allowed to paddle a canoe with an AGFC wildlife officer, Lt. Rodney Myers, at the fun day. Though at first reluctant and concerned about safety, the woman relented and both mom and son went canoeing with the officer. “She was mesmerized,” Jackson said.

“They had never done that before. Afterward, she was saying they were going to do this more often.”

Jones later shared on Facebook: “Being his mom means facing my own personal fears. He was ready! Thank you, Rodney, for the encouragement. This was so much fun.”

Family Fun Days picked up again this year, although Mother Nature intervened twice, with bad weather forcing cancellation of two of the four events. They could not be rescheduled because of the full array of other events the FCFP handles during the year, Jackson said, but they’ll try again next year. “We’ll probably start planning for 2020 in August,” he said.

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