Retailer, mentoring group team up to get fishing gear in kids’ hands

07/04/2014 6:16 PM

07/05/2014 6:51 AM

Fish, beware: Chaz Oliver has a new rod and reel and he’s not afraid to use it.

“I’ve caught three fish so far,” Chaz said. “I really like to catch perch and catfish.”

The 12-year-old Wichitan is one of thousands of Kansas kids given similar fishing outfits for free over about the past decade, thanks to a creative cooperation between Pass It On Outdoor Mentors and Bass Pro Shops.

The program, which sends rods and reels traded in by Bass Pro Shops customers to Pass It On, has also been a major moneymaker for the Wichita-based organization dedicated to getting children to enjoy the outdoors in a variety of ways.

“In addition to (equipment) we give to kids, I know we’ve raised well over $110,000 selling reels on eBay,” said Mike Christensen, Pass it On director. “The most reels they sent us in one year was probably 12,000, but we generally get 6,000 to 8,000. We’re talking from 2004 to now, so that’s a lot of fishing reels.”

Christensen said the Pass It On program got its start under the Sedgwick County Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in 2002.

Back then, Big Brothers Big Sisters president Nick Mork recognized a vast field of potential mentors among the thousands of local adult hunters, anglers and target shooters. As an avid outdoorsman, he also recognized what local youth could learn about conservation, responsibility, self-respect and firearms safety in the outdoors.

Christensen still works closely with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program, though Pass It On became an independent group in 2006. That was largely so it could work with other organizations. By then, the pipeline from Bass Pro Shops was already flowing with truckloads of fishing equipment.

“It was probably in 2004 when Bass Pro reached out and asked if we could use some reels. We said ‘sure,’ having no idea where this would end up,” Christensen said. “Sometimes they’ve sent us some huge amounts of reels and they’re sending us rods, too, now.”

Tammy Sapp, Bass Pro Shops communications director, said the gear comes from annual spring trade-in promotions at most of its 67 stores across the U.S. and Canada. Customers who bring in an old reel get a store credit that can be used against the purchase of new gear.

“We have the reel trade-in program for two reasons,” Sapp said. “For one thing, it captures the whole recycle, reuse concept to take care of the environment, like we’ve promoted for years. It also lets people give back, to give that gift of fishing to someone else to start to enjoy.”

Judging by the quality of some of the reels donated, some anglers want to ensure such beginners are well-equipped.

“We’ve gotten some reels that have obviously spent a lot of time at the bottom of a pond and some that are beyond repair, but we get some nice ones, too,” Christensen said. “I think the most we’ve sold a reel for was about $250 for a really nice Shimano baitcaster. That’s a lot of money.”

Individual Bass Pro Shops stores can decide where to donate gear that’s been traded in. Sapp said they now have similar programs for bows, scopes, crossbows, rangefinders and binoculars.

The gear coming to Pass It On arrives at Christensen’s office and warehouse in various sizes, shapes and conditions. He and Bill Barnes, a local volunteer, sort through the reels.

The main thing they’re looking for are bait-casting reels, which are usually too complex for kids but highly valued by serious anglers. They bring the best bids online, usually around $25 on average. All sorts of reels are put to good use.

Often times they’ll bundle 10 or so less complex spinning reels for sale. Even broken reels often can bring a fair price.

“They can bring some good money, sometimes like $15 apiece if it’s something like an Abu Garcia reel,” Christensen said. “If you have an old one that you really love, you’ll gladly spend that much just to have some extra parts in case yours breaks.”

Hundreds of inexpensive reels have been sold at local flea markets and garage sales. Christensen said they’ve swapped used fishing equipment at places like pawn shops for new gear that might be used as raffle items at fundraising events.

“We do what we can to raise funds to get these kids into the outdoors,” he said. “There’s a lot of need out there.”

In any given year, Christensen said Pass It On sends hundreds of Kansas kids on fishing and hunting trips. Often prime lakes, ponds and ranches have been opened to the group by landowners and outfitters.

Many of the trips are to give adult/youth pairs within the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs a quality outing. Christensen also uses such trips to pair up kids on the waiting list with adults who are considering becoming mentors. Pass It On also holds free shooting and fishing clinics for youth in general. Christensen is working with various conservation and sporting groups in other states, helping them get more kids into the outdoors, too.

Many of the kids at such fishing clinics leave the event with a free rod and reel. Often the reel is new.

“When a lot of guys go to Bass Pro Shops, they don’t have a reel they want to trade in so they’ll just go buy a new $5 Zebco 202 or other reel and turn it in for the credit,” Christiansen said. “Bass Pro sends those to us and we put them on a rod. This year we’ll probably have close to 400 new Zebco 202s we’ll be getting into the hands of kids. A lot of those kids think they’ve been given the best fishing equipment in the world.”

With his new rod and reel, Chaz Oliver, who is part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, has certainly developed an increased interest in angling with his Big Brother, Christian Lehr. The kid also has enough confidence to set some lofty goals for his new rod and reel.

“I want to catch a big catfish that’s two feet,” he said, “maybe four feet.”

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