N.J. program hopes kids who say yes to fishing will say no to drugs

Kaiden Johnson, 9, of Blackwood walks with his father, Christopher Johnson, after fishing at Rowand's Lake in Clementon, N.J., with the Hooked on Fishing - Not on Drugs program.

The man who introduced Gloucester Township to Hooked on Fishing -- Not on Drugs  wants to make something clear.

HOFNOD is not a rehab program for kids on drugs.

It’s about keeping kids off drugs altogether.

“The idea is to provide a positive alternative,” Bob Johnston says, as 30 youngsters and their families get busy baiting, casting, and reeling at Rowand Lake.

The modest body of water off Higgins Avenue in Clementon is freshly stocked with trout; spring is in the air; and the season’s first fishing event has just begun.

“We get the kids outside, not inside playing video games and nobody talking to each other,” says Johnston, 48, a union carpenter who lives in Blackwood. "We want to get families a chance to go out and do something together for free.”

The vibe at Rowand Lake is light-hearted; kids and adult volunteers in blue HOFNOD T-shirts are having a ball.

But the seriousness of the battle against drug abuse by the young is underscored when Johnston shows me a tiny, empty, pale green drug baggie he’s just found in the grass near the parking lot. Then he finds another one.

“One of the things we teach the kids is to keep their eyes open,” he says. “Some heroin addicts aren’t careful with their needles.”

Established 20 years ago as a youth education program of the Future Fisherman Foundation  in Oklahoma, HOFNOD has since spread to 30 states. Gov. Christie signed legislation in 2012 to implement the program statewide; New Jersey currently has 23 local teams, sponsored by a variety of organizations, in 14 counties.

About 400 girls and boys are signed up, says Larry Hajna, spokesman for the N.J Department of Environmental Protection.

“The goal … is to introduce youth to the fun and excitement of fishing, and to engage them in meaningful life skills, so that they also can imagine unlimited possibilities for themselves,” Liz Jackson, HOFNOD coordinator for the DEP’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, says in a statement.

One of the oldest programs affiliated with HOFNOD in South Jersey is Burlington-Camden Fishermen Against Drugs, which started 11 years ago and opened its season April 9 with trout fishing at Mount Laurel’s Freedom Lake. It will hold its annual “fishing derby” at Vincentown Lake on May 31.

“Everybody can fish,” says Floyd Reynolds, 60, an insurance professional from Vincentown, adds that he helped launch the Burlington-Camden group “as a way to get kids interested in something constructive [and] help build up their self-esteem.” 

Like Reynolds, Johnston grew up fishing, continues to enjoy the hobby, and loves sharing its satisfactions with others.

“I had heard about [HOFNOD] being up in North Jersey, and I wanted to get something started here,” he explains, adding that he established the Gloucester Township Team after a knee injury necessitated that he take time off from work four years ago.

Johnston has created a 28-week curriculum, including classroom instruction about fishing, water safety, and ecology, as well as the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and smoking. Lake Mathilde, in the township's Erial section, has become the group's home port. 

Several of Johnston's adult volunteers have been certified as instructors, including Carmen Fanelli Jr. and his son, Carmen Fanelli III, who hail from Audubon.

“My father taught me to fish, and now I tell the kids, ‘It’s called fishing. Not catching,’” Carmen Jr,, 67, says, noting that one of the first lessons for a neophyte angler is patience.

“Kids don’t want to watch the bobber,” he adds. “They want to cast it out and reel it right back in.”

On the evening of my visit to Rowand Lake, the older Fanelli patiently instructs Sarah McGill, 11, of Blackwood, who’s new to fishing. “I was really impressed,” says her mother, Jennifer, an RN at Virtua in Voorhees.

Three generations of Johnson family fishermen -- Dennis, 60, his son Christopher, 33, and grandson Kaiden, 9 -- are enjoying a guys’ evening out. Kaiden, a Deptford third grader, says he’s looking forward to an upcoming trip on a North Carolina tuna boat.

And nearby, Eunice Askew, a Gloucester Township mother of three, is watching her son Daniel, 11, catch his first fish.

“It took a while,” the fifth grader says. “It wasn’t very big, but it had very pointy fins and I liked it, because it was my first one.”

But family memories of a sadder sort have inspired lifelong fisherman Fred Klein, a retired project manager from Swedesboro, to volunteer as an instructor.

Five years ago, Fred lost his youngest son, Christopher, to a heroin overdose. He was 28.

“This is the driving force for me,” Fred says, describing his son,  who had long struggled to get clean, as someone “who always had a lot of love in his heart.”

He adds, “I am sure that if Christopher had made it … and knew about the Hooked on Fishing - Not on Drugs program, he would be the instructor.”