In late April, I received an email from Brenda Brown, manager of the Fort Hood SKIES Unlimited program, letting me know that Jennifer Katz, of Killeen, had signed up her daughter, Cayli Katz, for a “Fishing 101” trip with me on May 21.
SKIES Unlimited is one of several programs falling under the Child, Youth, and Student Services activity on Fort Hood. SKIES Unlimited stands for School of Knowledge, Inspiration, Exploration and Skills. SKIES Unlimited classes are open to children of active-duty military personnel, retirees, Department of the Army civilians, and Department of Defense contractors.
The experiences available through SKIES are many and quite varied, ranging from art courses, to dance instruction, martial arts, swimming lessons and more. The Fishing 101 course puts children on either Belton Lake or Stillhouse Hollow Reservoir for four hours of fishing from a boat, learning how to cast, use various lures and baits, land fish, take fish off the hook and much more.
When Cayli, her mother, and Cayli’s cousin, Matty Solorzano, arrived at the boat ramp around 4:30 p.m., I went over what to do in the event of an emergency, and then moved on to how to use the various forms of gear I had prepared for this trip.
The first technique we tried was downrigging. Because many of the newly hatched shad are now making their way out to open water to feed on algae, they are easily silhouetted against the sunlit surface and are frequently attacked by aggressive game fish like largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, white bass, and hybrid striped bass.
Cayli learned how to use a baitcasting reel and why an umbrella rig equipped with multiple small baits was particularly effective at this point in the season. After about 25 minutes of effort without a result, we moved to another, deeper area and tried a second technique.
In about 49 feet of water, we used a ¾-ounce egg sinker to take our live shad baits down toward the bottom. A swivel positioned just below the egg sinker joined the main line to the leader, which was attached to a size 1/0 circle hook. This rig allowed for our live baits to swim freely within a few feet of the bottom.
Within minutes of positioning ourselves in a hover over top of the fish we’d found using i-Pilot GPS positioning technology, our sonar unit revealed a number of fish taking interest in our baits.
There was near-panic when the first fish of the day grabbed a 4-inch shad and began racing off with it to keep its schoolmates from grabbing it. This resulted in the audible bait clicker component of the reel making its characteristic screaming sound, intended to get the angler’s attention in just such a circumstance. Cayli knew she needed to respond, but with everything happening so quickly, forgot most of what we’d practiced.
With a little calm coaching she turned the reel’s handle to stop the fish from moving off any farther, then pulled the rod out of the rod holder, and then began to attempt to get line back onto the reel by cranking the handle. Slowly but surely, the reel’s line counter started making its way backward from 59 feet to 40, then 30, and so on until only 5 feet of line remained out beyond the rod’s tip and the fish appeared at the surface.
Once again I coached Cayli to place her right thumb onto the reel’s spool in order to negate the drag and keep the fish from pulling out any more line, while at the same time lifting the rod’s tip slowly into the air so as to get the fish right on the surface, thus letting me slide a net beneath it.
Cayli did her part, and I did mine, and soon after, all four of us celebrated the first fish Cayli had ever caught in her life, a 3.25-pound hybrid striped bass. This catch qualified Cayli for a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department “First Fish Award.” Cayli and Matty went on to land a total of 41 fish during this four-hour excursion.
Many military families are eligible for sizeable credits toward SKIES Unlimited activities, including a $300 “Army Strong” credit available to each child when their parent is deployed.
To enroll in SKIES Unlimited activities, children must be registered with CYSS at Building 121 on 761st Tank Destroyer Avenue.There is no charge for registration. Parents must bring an ID that shows their affiliation with the military, the child’s shot records, and a report from a recent physical exam.