Chairman moved by what Kids' Outdoor Experience fishing derby has meant over 17 years

MATT BENOIT MURROW NEWS SERVICEApril 13, 2014 

Last year, Ken Johanning was walking around the family fishing pond at Kennewick's Columbia Park when he was approached by a father with his young boy.

"Mr. Johanning," the man said. "You see that little boy? That was me 15 years ago."

Seeing what the annual Kids' Outdoor Experience fishing derby has meant to people through the years has been touching for Johanning, chairman of the local nonprofit organizing the annual event for a 17th year.

The derby, scheduled for May 9-10, gives children ages 5-14 a chance to experience the thrill of fishing from a seven-acre lake stocked with 7,000 rainbow trout.

About 1,200 to 1,400 children typically attend the event's second day, Johanning said. The first day, organized by The Arc of Tri-Cities, is reserved for children with special needs.

Each child gets a new fishing rod to fish with and keep, Johanning said. To date, he's given away 28,200 rods and reels.

Johanning started the derby in 1997 after driving past what was then a small, shallow pond, he said.

Known as the "Old Lagoon" and used as a swimming area in the 1950s and 60s, the water became unusable for such purposes and eventually became only a foot deep after the lagoon was mostly filled in, he said.

Johanning renovated the lagoon, deepening it to 18 feet as part of a $1 million project originally budgeted at $50,000.

The Thursday before the derby, state Fish and Wildlife officials stock the pond with trout, 4,500 of which weigh about two pounds, Johanning said. Screens prevent the fish from reaching the Columbia River, and river fish from reaching the pond.

The day of the derby, nearly 100 volunteers arrive at 7 a.m. Children fish in groups of 300 for an hour at a time beginning at 9 a.m., until all children have had the opportunity to fish, Johanning said.

After 2 p.m., anyone can fish the pond, and the several weeks following the derby yields good fishing, Johanning said. He sometimes struggles to keep adults from dipping a line in during the derby.

If children do not know how to fish, volunteers teach them. Bait is provided and each child has a three-fish limit. Any fish caught are cleaned for the children by volunteers, he said.

Although Johanning is usually exhausted by Saturday night and sometimes wonders whether it's worth it to keep the derby going, he said he always re-considers.

"When you see the smiles on these kids' faces, when they catch their first fish ... it's worth it," he said. "It's really, really a great day, and I don't see me ever quitting this thing."

Registration is $10 and limited to the first 1,200 kids. For more information, go to go2kennewick.com/recreation and click on "Youth Activities."

-- Tri-City Herald intern Matt Benoit is a Washington State University student: 509-947-9277, mbenoit@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Matt_Benoit

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