The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission encourages families and young anglers to try a diversity of freshwater fishing locations and techniques to catch a variety of fish. The “Big Catch” program is Florida's family-friendly, freshwater angler-recognition program, with 33 different freshwater fish to target. Simply catch a fish that exceeds the qualifying length or weight, take a photo and submit it to BigCatchFlorida.com. Special youth sizes encourage their participation, and qualifiers earn a customized color-certificate, decal and discount for a photo mount.
Big Catch’s origins go back to 1953, but the concept was revamped in 1996 with creation of categories for Specialists (five qualifying fish of the same species), Masters (five qualifying fish of different species) and Elite anglers (10 qualifying fish of different species), as well as a youth category representing a size roughly 25-percent smaller than the adult qualification size. Rules were relaxed to allow either a length or weight measurement to qualify.
Ivan Salis of Callahan was an early participant following the program’s rebirth and quickly qualified as a Channel Catfish Specialist, which remains his passion. Salis came from Ohio after a stint in the Merchant Marine. Now he is sharing his love of fishing with the next generation.
About nine months ago, Salis met Ishmael Lacoste, a 12-year-old, whose mother knew Lacoste’s wife. Lacoste saw Salis’ Specialist Certificate and became intrigued. Salis has since mentored Lacoste in his quest to become a successful angler. We are talking commitment, passion and love for fishing.
In nine months, Lacoste has submitted nearly 40 qualifying Big Catches culminating in earning his Elite Angler Certificate on June 4. His first Big Catch was a longnose gar on Nov. 23, 2013. It was followed by bass, bluegill, brown bullhead and redear sunfish, earning him his Master Angler Certificate in January. To attain his elite status he added spotted sunfish, Florida gar, warmouth, bowfin and yellow bullhead. Along the way, he has been recognized as a specialist for six different species and documented a Bream Slam (catching four different panfish species on the same day).
“I’d like to make fishing a career someday,” said Lacoste, who is home-schooled. He is very appreciative of Salis’ mentoring him and being so inspirational. Together they have persevered through wind, rain and yellow flies in their ongoing quest.
Salis says he has enjoyed watching Lacoste learn and take on new challenges.
Another thing that makes their productivity so impressive is that all of their catches have been from shore or fishing piers. Thanks to the FWC’s Fish Management Area (FMA) lakes in Duval County, they have had plenty of quality opportunities, including at Oceanway and Bethesda. FWC fisheries technician Willie Prevatt has spent over 20 years ensuring anglers have great fishing opportunities at those and other regional FMAs and helping teach youth and adults to fish. Prevatt is a favorite resource for Salis and Lacoste.
“I was very happy Ishmael made Elite Angler, not because he caught most of his fish in the FMAs I work in, but simply because he is a really good person/student,” Prevatt said. “I think I am most proud of Ishmael and Mr. Salis because they proved by example that you can compete with anglers fishing big lakes in expensive bass boats and with fancy equipment, in a small FMA on the shore or dock, even in an urban area.”
Fishing is fun, challenging and a great way to spend quality time with family and friends, but there is more to it. A “Special Report on Fishing and Boating 2013,” makes the case succinctly:
“Fishing – on lakes, streams, rivers and seas – is one of the most popular outdoor activities. As a ‘gateway activity,’ it not only connects Americans with the outdoors and a healthy lifestyle, but also introduces them to other outdoor activities. As active outdoor participants, Americans learn the value of environmental stewardship and a healthy connection to nature, while also supporting public lands and community programs nationwide through license fees and federal aid.”
The FWC is creating the next generation that cares by reaching out to all youth via a variety of outreach programs, including the Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network (www.FYCCN.org). Through an effective statewide network of diverse partners, youngsters are provided education and guidance to safely engage in traditional outdoor activities and to accept stewardship of our precious outdoor heritage.
In addition to Big Catch, which inspired Salis and Lacoste to get outdoors and go fishing, the FWC has a TrophyCatch citizen-science program that rewards anglers for catching, documenting and releasing bass heavier than 8 pounds (TrophyCatchFlorida.com). You can register for TrophyCatch and Big Catch at the same time, which makes you eligible for a drawing for a Phoenix bass boat, powered by Mercury Marine and equipped with a Power-Pole.
This article was originally published in the Florida Fish Busters’ Bulletin.