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SPORTS WEEKEND | OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

It's Hook, Line and Sinker for Kids

March 28, 1997|PETE THOMAS

Christopher Higa was as impressed as anyone by the giant freighters that dwarfed the fishing boat he was on as it made its way through Long Beach Harbor, and by the towering cranes loading enormous tubs of cargo.

And as the boat passed out of the channel and into the bay, he seemed content to be leaving behind the only world he had known for one ruled by sharks and perhaps even great big sea monsters lurking somewhere out there in the murky, green depths of this huge, mysterious ocean.

But the 9-year-old from Alta Loma Elementary School in Los Angeles soon developed a serious problem with what was happening aboard the vessel itself. He hurried to the side of the nearest grown-up, looked him in the eye and muttered that he was scared.

Asked what he was afraid of, he pointed to his fellow grade schoolers lining up outside the wheelhouse, waiting to take their turn behind the controls, and said, "I'm scared because the kids are driving the boat."

Standing next to Higa was Jefferson Mejia, 8, whose only concern was what to do with all the fish he was going to catch. "I'm going to let them all go back where they live," he said, motioning to the rippling sea.

Realizing that he had not given this matter enough thought, he turned and announced that he was going to take his fish home instead.

"I thought you were going to let them all go?" the grown-up asked.

"Only two," Mejia explained, nodding as if this were the perfect compromise and his final decision.

And so it went for Higa and Mejia, and dozens of other intrepid young anglers from Langdon Elementary in North Hills and Alta Loma who had embarked on their first fishing trip.

Sniffing the salt air, marveling at the grace of the gulls soaring overhead, running to the galley for more food, they were making the most of this new and refreshing experience.

"Some of them never even knew what the water looked like before today," said Guille Pulido, coordinator for the L.A.'s Best After School Enrichment Program, which is designed to allow children growing up in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods to do things they might otherwise never be able to do.

Fishing trips became part of the program three years ago when Philip Friedman, president of the fishing information hotline, 976-TUNA, took a few dozen kids on a single excursion donated by Long Beach Sportfishing.

This year the cooperative effort--Long Beach Sportfishing supplied the boat and crew, 976-TUNA the volunteers and L.A.'s Best the children--in eight trips over a two-week period introduced 800 boys and girls from 16 schools to to a world far removed from the drugs and thugs that have infected theirs.

"Many of these kids, all they see is their little world and that could be only six blocks by six blocks," 976-TUNA's Ed White said, while baiting the hook of a boy anxious to get his line back in the water. "Now they see that there's something else out there, so they're thinking, 'Maybe I'd like to make my world a little bit bigger.' "

Added volunteer Raymond Penn: "If they get just one day of this . . . it's something they can hold onto forever."

That's more than could be said about the lively mackerel they began to catch as soon as the boat stopped near the harbor entrance.

Bryan Osario, 8, nearly choked his fish to death trying to hold it long enough to have his picture taken.

Santa Lucia, 10, never could come to grips with grabbing one and made it clear that catching fish was her job, clutching them was someone else's.

Having been on so many trips with serious, experienced anglers, it was a nice change of pace to watch inexperienced youngsters in action.

They could have shown the hotshots a thing or two about how to act. Not one of them shoved past to the prime spot on the rail. Not one of them uttered a word of profanity when another one crossed a line. Not one of them came with expectations so high that they were sure to be dashed when the fish didn't bite.

Instead they came with the attitude all fishermen begin with, but one many lose when they start taking the sport too seriously. They didn't care what they caught and considered themselves fortunate merely to have the chance to catch something.

And catch something they did.

Ebony Miller, 10, after realizing that the pieces of squid piled on the bait tank weren't so gross after all, began baiting her own hook and quickly became one of the top anglers, reeling in fish after fish, sharing her secret with anyone who would listen.

"I catch so many because I use this part," she told one of her classmates, dangling the tentacled head of a squid in front of her face, prompting a shriek that rang out across the harbor.

Estuardo Marroquin, 11, brought a strange-looking silvery fish over the rail and wanted to know what it was. When told it was a queenfish, he looked at the mackerel his friend was holding and said, "I'd rather have one of those."

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