April 26, 2012
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
If there had been a class similar to the one taught recently in Greene County, I’m almost certain I would have been near the head of the class. Of course, this class is on a subject that continues to intrigue me so many years after I finished my secondary education – fishing.
That’s right, fishing. Why didn’t our educators come up with a curriculum like that when I was 14 years old? I promise I would have paid attention during class.
For the teenagers at Mountain Brook Junior High, one option for physical education is fishing, and it’s obviously a popular choice.
Last week, about 200 youngsters from the school loaded onto buses and headed to Leavellwood for some of its legendary bass fishing. Trey and Pam Montgomery, Leavellwood’s owners, treated the kids to some of the best bass fishing around.
John Phillips teaches the class, which begins with classroom instruction and culminates with the field trip to Leavellwood, where the classroom becomes the banks and piers of the numerous Leavellwood lakes in the heart of the Black Belt.
“It’s incredible that some of these kids have never fished in their lives,” said Trey Montgomery. “We’ve been doing it for 11 years, so there are some kids in their 20s now that started their fishing right here. As I told the seventh-graders, they are the hunters and fishermen in the future. It’s so important for these kids to be introduced to fishing. It helps them stay grounded.
“It’s usually the girls who do better. They do a lot of screaming and hollering when they catch one. And it’s a lot of fun for us to watch these kids enjoy a day of fishing.”
Phillips, who grew up fishing with his famous outdoor-writer father by the same name, presented the idea of adding fishing to the physical education curriculum some 12 years ago. Doug Darr, Aquatic Education Coordinator with The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, helped develop and implement the program throughout the state.
“I had been coming with my dad to Leavellwood to fish with the Montgomerys,” Phillips said. “I knew the conservation department was providing a new curriculum. The conservation department provides you with the material and provides rods and reels to use during your unit. All I have to do is call and tell them when we’re going to have our fishing unit. The rods are ready to go.
“We teach the kids casting. We do a segment from the workbooks they provide to teach the kids how to tie the different knots, like the improved clinch and the Palomar. Then we spend two days on fish identification from their website [outdooralabama.com] on our mobile computing lab. Then the kids do a worksheet. That’s 20 percent of their grade. We involve some of the material on the website, some of the stuff on genus and species and habitat as well as teaching them how to cast and how to bait the hooks.”
The trip to Leavellwood is an optional aspect of the fishing class. Students pay $80 for the trip, which includes transportation, fishing and lunch. The seventh-graders come the first day, followed by the eighth-graders.
“We try to limit it to about 70 each day, but we were filled in about 10 minutes, so we brought in 113 seventh-graders and 80 eighth-graders this year,” Phillips said. “During the 11 years, we figured up that we had taught about 7,000 kids how to fish. The Montgomerys do a great job at Leavellwood. It’s a great arena. We can see the kids the whole time.”
Darr said last year the ADCNR’s education outreach program conducted 81 sessions of hands-on fishing classes for 1,932 anglers. Class content includes safety, ethics, casting, fish identification and fish biology. The goals are for anglers to improve fishing skills and enjoyment, increase participation and become more knowledgeable about aquatic ecosystems and conservation. In addition, fisheries biologists taught 52 casting classes to 1,814 participants. The Fisheries Section also made 16 presentations to 292 instructors about casting, fishing and aquatic education. The rods and reels loaned to physical education instructors allow students additional casting practice, which enhances the students’ confidence to go fishing when the opportunity arises. 
Darr said teachers can use the ADCNR’s “Basic Fishing” book, which is available online at www.outdooralabama.com/fishing/freshwater/fishingtips/fishingtips.pdf or the “Sport Fishing Handbook” by the Future Fisherman Foundation.
“There are all different types of people,” Phillips said. “It’s our job at the middle school to find something in our curriculum in P.E. that each kid enjoys. For some kids, this is their favorite thing. They love doing it. I have some kids who don’t excel in the classroom but are great out here. I’ve got kids who don’t do as well academically, but they know how to fish, how to cast, and they know every bait. They have outdoors skills they don’t get to use in a regular classroom. That’s what I like about this curriculum. It gives every kid a chance to be part of something and learn a skill.”
Phillips said he has received a great deal of positive feedback during those 11 years of fishing classes.
“I’ve had parents who have written me letters that this was one of the best things their kids did during junior high,” he said. “I’ve had great feedback from the kids, too. I’ve had kids take P.E. as an elective as ninth-graders just so they can go on this trip.”
To watch a youngster who has never been exposed to fishing and the outdoors break out in a wide grin after catching a fish makes Phillips realize what benefits outdoors recreation can provide to impressionable youth. It is also why it’s so important that he passes it on.
“I grew up in the outdoors,” he said. “I was fortunate, and this gives me a chance to give back.”
Top: Leavellwood’s piers and shorelines became the classroom setting for Mountain Brook Junior High’s physical education class recently in Greene County.
Middle: Jake Stein, an eighth-grader at Mountain Brook Junior High, unhooks a nice largemouth bass he caught recently during the school’s fishing class at Leavellwood.
Bottom: Physical education teacher John Phillips unhooks a bass for eighth-grader Meredith Stringfellow during Mountain Brook Junior High’s fishing class at Leavellwood.