Wet a line during Free Fishing Days

As part of this year's National Fishing Week festivities, the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission has designated June 5-6 as Free Fishing Days in Oklahoma.

For those two days, anyone may fish in Oklahoma without having to purchase a fishing license. Oklahoma was the first state to adopt Free Fishing Days in 1988 as a way to honor the state's fishing tradition, as well as to promote the sport of fishing, said Barry Bolton, assistant chief of fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Since then, the program has established itself as an event through which countless youngsters and newcomers have discovered the joys of fishing.

"Fishing is one of the most popular forms of recreation in our state, and Free Fishing Days is a way for us to honor Oklahoma's rich fishing heritage," Bolton said. "We have many places that can provide a lifetime of exciting memories for anglers young and old, and we hope experienced anglers take this opportunity to introduce a child or a newcomer to this rewarding, enjoyable pastime."

Oklahoma is home to more than 900,000 anglers who spend $491 million fishing in this state alone, Bolton added. They generate nearly $1 billion in economic impact, which supports nearly 15,000 jobs.

"It's safe to say that fishing is an important economic force not only in Oklahoma, but throughout America," Bolton said. "The Department has a commitment to maintain the quantity and quality of fishing opportunities in Oklahoma, and it's our goal to make sure that every generation of Oklahomans have access to those opportunities."

As part of its Aquatic Resources Education Program, the Department conducts a number of free fishing clinics around the state each year. In 1998, more than 16,000 Oklahomans participated in the clinics, including many who had previously never been exposed to fishing. The clinics are the backbone of the program in which participants learn the basic skills required to fish successfully. They also learn about fisheries management and conservation, and most get to fish during the clinics.

Get started now For lifetime of fishing

According to the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), more than 90 percent of today's anglers started fishing before they turned 18.

Furthermore, research says that if a boy or girl isn't introduced to fishing by the time he or she is 13, chances are they will never take up the sport.

As schedules get more hectic and people continue to move to the cities, the opportunity to introduce youngsters to the sport of fishing gets increasingly difficult. Therefore, many youngsters are denied the opportunity to participate in a sport that offers a lifetime of fun that can impart and enhance the values of sportsmanship, responsibility, relaxation, patience and concern for the outdoors.

In his 1988 book, An Outdoor Journal, former president Jimmy Carter wrote, "The most vivid and pleasant memories of my childhood are of those times when Daddy and I were able to fish and hunt together, or ride along in a pickup truck talking about it."

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Aquatic Resources Education Program (AREP) annually teaches more than 16,000 kids the sport of fishing, said Josh Cussimanio, Aquatic Resources Education coordinator for the Wildlife Department. Through this popular program, Department employees and volunteers teach youngsters the basics of fishing, such as knot tying, fish identification and casting skills, as well as aquatic resources conservation.

"Many kids who were exposed to fishing through the Aquatic Resources Education Program have developed a genuine love of fishing that will last a lifetime," Cussimanio said. "Even if participants in the program don't become avid anglers, the things we teach them give them a greater understanding of the aquatic world and the needs of our state's aquatic resources, which in turn gives them a better understanding of the world around them."

If you have or know of a child that you would like to introduce to the

sport, AREP has these tips to offer:

* Have fun. Don't worry too much about technique. Share the proper, safe way to cast a rod and reel. Save the fancy stuff for later.

* Keep it simple. You don't need fancy equipment. You don't need a boat. Fishing from a dock or shore will do just fine.

* Use reliable equipment. Good fishing equipment is important to ensure everyone has a successful trip. If you are going to buy a rod and reel for a child, spend a little extra for a quality spin-cast rig (good equipment costs only about $20). The little "cartoon character" rods are more frustrating for both you and the child in the long run.

* Keep it short. Kids have short attention spans, so don't force a child to fish for hours. Sometimes a child will be happy fishing for 15 minutes and then playing with the worms for an hour.

* Quick success. With youngsters, a little success early on will hook them for a lifetime. Find a spot where you are sure to catch fish. Remember, kids don't care about size or species, but they do like to catch fish, even little ones.

* Use live bait. Leave the expensive lures at home. Hooks and bobbers are a kid's best bet. Sometimes digging for earthworms in the garden or catching grasshoppers or crickets can be the most fun in a child's outing.

* Don't intimidate. If a child catches a fish, don't force him or her to take it off the hook, or to touch the fish. Do it for them.

* Safety first. The most important thing you can teach a kid on his or her first outing is the importance of safety. Water needs to be respected. Wear life jackets. Make sure no one or thing is in the way to be hooked when casting.

* Time is precious. Spending time with your child is the most important part of a child's fishing trip. Your time is the most valuable possession to a child.

For more information about the Department's Aquatic Resources Education program or for information on volunteering, call Josh Cussimanio at (405) 521-4603.

Outdoor Oklahoma now available

If you're looking for this summer's best bets for outdoor recreation, you can find them in the May/June issue of Outdoor Oklahoma.

Devoted entirely to the conservation, management and enjoyment of Oklahoma's natural resources, Outdoor Oklahoma is the official publication of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The award-winning magazine is famous for its photography, as well as for its insightful features on Oklahoma's wildlife, fisheries and sporting opportunities.

In the May/June issue, you'll learn all about Oklahoma's premier destination for trophy striped bass in "Eye of the Tiger." This feature takes an in-depth look at striper fishing on the lower Illinois River, complete with tips and tactics on battling the biggest stripers in the state on one of our most scenic waterways.

For wildlife watchers, "Oklahoma's Flying Hammerheads" spotlights the major woodpecker species found in Oklahoma. This feature explains how woodpeckers smack their heads against solid objects without injury while describing the benefits they provide by eating a wide range of insects. You'll also learn how to attract woodpeckers to your backyard birdfeeders.

A sidebar examines the condition of Oklahoma's populations of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, which inhabit the McCurtain County Wilderness Area. You'll also learn how to prevent woodpeckers from "drumming" on your house.

Before you get too handy with your shovel or hoe this summer, you'll want to read the "Watchable Wildlife" feature, which takes a close look at the copperhead. You might be surprised at how helpful this reptile can be at keeping rodent populations under control near your home.

"To Cast A Line" takes an introspective look at the art of fishing and explores the many reasons why people fish while honoring the timeless tradition of fishing.

Anyone who's interested in Oklahoma's prairie heritage will enjoy, "Fighting for a Prairie Icon." This article examines the plight of the lesser prairie chicken in Oklahoma while describing the efforts of a multi-state task force to preserve these colorful and fascinating birds.

If you're already thinking about fall hunting, you'll love this issue's "Getting Started," feature, which tells you everything you need to know about muzzleloader hunting. A related article provides a list of our state's best places to enjoy some fantastic black powder hunting next autumn.

As always, the "Off the Beaten Path" section offers handy tips and other valuable information for hunters, anglers and other wildlife enthusiasts.

Outdoor Oklahoma is available on newsstands, or by sending $4 to Outdoor Oklahoma, 1801 N. Lincoln Blvd., Oklahoma City OK 73105. Subscriptions to the bi-monthly magazine are $10 per year, $18 for two years and $25 for three years. Order by calling 1-800-777-0019.

Public opinion counts in Fort Supply study

A 16-year study conducted at Fort Supply Reservoir has reinforced the belief that fisheries management is most effective when applied at the local level.

The study, which started in 1983 and ended Feb. 28, 1999, documents an effort by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's fisheries division to improve the crappie population at Fort Supply. Though known for producing large numbers of small crappie, the lake had a shortage of large, older fish, said Jeff Boxrucker, a Department fisheries biologist who headed the study. To diversify the structure of the lake's crappie population, the Department in 1990 instituted a 10-inch minimum length limit on crappie, as well as a daily harvest limit of 15 crappie.

The strategy worked as far as helping the lake produce bigger crappie, Boxrucker added, but the limits proved very unpopular with local anglers. Many stopped fishing the lake altogether, which was an undesired and unexpected side affect. After considering public input and examining the effects of the limit, the fisheries division removed the limits in 1996.

"From a biological standpoint, we saw some improvements in the crappie population at Fort Supply, but socially, the regulations were unacceptable," Boxrucker explained. The fishermen didn't like it, and so a lot of them quit fishing. Biology is not all we have to concern ourselves with when we make management decisions because, after all, we do manage fisheries for public benefit."

One reason anglers didn't support the regulations is because of the limited number of fishing opportunities in northwest Oklahoma. Fishing lakes are relatively scarce in that part of the state, and anglers were already satisfied with -------Fort Supply's crappie fishery. They didn't feel it needed improvement, and they had few options for fishing elsewhere.

"What the people in western Oklahoma told me is that they don't have other lakes they can go to," Boxrucker said, "so if they don't like a length limit, they can't just go to another lake. On the other hand, we've got four lakes in eastern Oklahoma with length limits, and people there just love them. People in different parts of the state have different desires, that's all."

Department dedicates Hackberry Flat

Under a bright southwest Oklahoma sky, more than 100 wildlife enthusiasts and dignitaries gathered May 7 for the dedication of Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area.

The event celebrated the restoration of the legendary Hackberry Flat wetland, one of Oklahoma's greatest natural treasures. Located about seven miles southeast of Frederick, Hackberry Flat contains 7,120 acres of crucial habitat for migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and a variety of other wildlife. It is considered one of the most important wetland areas on the Central Flyway, and its restoration is seen as one of Oklahoma's greatest conservation triumphs of the decade.

Hackberry Flat is extremely important not only to wildlife, but also to the people of Oklahoma," said Richard Hatcher, chief of wildlife for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "To see it in its natural condition is the culmination of countless hours of hard work and planning, but none of it would have been possible without the help of our many partners who donated time, labor, equipment and financial resources to bring this dream to fruition. This truly is a tribute to the dedication and commitment of the people who made it happen."

The state's largest depressional wetland, Hackberry Flat was drained in the early part of the century by locals who dug a massive ditch that was four miles long, 40 feet across and nearly 20 feet deep. However, the low spots still held water when it rained, which made farming very difficult on Hackberry Flat.

In 1993, the Department purchased the property from 30 willing sellers. With the help of its partners, the Department built nearly 40 miles of levees and ditches to form a honeycomb of large ponds, or cells, that allow managers to flood any part of the area according to the needs of migrating waterfowl.

To supply water to the area, the City of Frederick donated its water allotment from Tom Steed Reservoir to the project. The Department built a 17-mile pipeline connecting Hackberry Flat to Tom Steed Reservoir, assuring a dependable water supply.

The festivities began as dignitaries opened the valve to begin releasing water onto the area. After a tour of the area, visitors and dignitaries gathered at Observation Hill for the dedication ceremony. Featured speakers included William Crawford, chairman of the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission; Greg Duffy, director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Julius Wall, president of Ducks Unlimited, Bob Misso, national wetlands coordinator for Natural Resources Conservation Service, Keith Bailey, president and CEO of the Williams Companies, Inc., and Lieutenant Governor Mary Fallin. Jameson Parker, an actor best known as the co-star of the series, Simon & Simon, was the master of ceremonies.

Already a prime dove hunting area, Hackberry Flat is expected to become the premier duck hunting destination in southwest Oklahoma. It will also allow wildlife enthusiasts unlimited opportunities to view a variety of shorebirds and other animal species.

Students save cans for "horny toad"

During the 1998-99 school year, Oklahoma students recycled more than 3,000 pounds of aluminum cans to raise money for the rare Texas horned lizard. Their efforts were part of the statewide "Cans 4 Critters" contest sponsored by the Oklahoma Wildlife Diversity Program.

"More than 1,000 youngsters participated in this year's contest, raising nearly $900 for Texas horned lizards, said Jeremy Garrett, information specialist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "We're very impressed with the efforts that these students put into the contest. They recycled 3,082 pounds of aluminum cans."

Now completing its fifth year, "Cans 4 Critters" is a statewide contest allowing Oklahoma youth to participate in wildlife conservation efforts by recycling aluminum cans and donating the proceeds to the Wildlife Diversity Program, Garrett added. This program does not receive state appropriations. Instead, it is funded primarily by contributions through the state income tax check-off, sales of Wildlife Conservation License Plates and direct donations.

"As in the past, we intend to use Cans 4 Critters donations to fund a research project on Texas horned lizards," Garrett said. "Past projects have experimented with tracking methods to determine the microhabitat used by horny toads. We hope to learn more specifically what type of habitats the lizards use, so that we can give concerned Oklahomans ideas on how to improve their properties for horned lizards.

"We also continue to receive many responses to a Texas horned lizard survey produced three years ago with Cans 4 Critters donations," Garrett added. "This is helping us to learn where horny toads still exist in Oklahoma and what their population size is."

Each group collecting Cans 4 Critters received a certificate of appreciation. Group members also received a wildlife poster for every five pounds of cans they saved. Groups received several awards in the contest, including those for greatest dollar contributions and highest average pounds collected.

Sooner Elementary Sixth Grade of Moore (taught by Ray Neff) took first place for contributing the most money. They raised $210 for 573 pounds of aluminum. The Garfield County 4-H Wildlife Club (leaders Jim Rhodes and Gay Simpson) contributed $151.50 for 606 pounds, and Wanette Fourth Grade (taught by Sharon Gray) donated $74 for 309 pounds.

Taking first place for the greatest average pounds collected was the Garfield County 4-H Wildlife Club, which averaged 43.2 pounds per member. The Wellston 4-H Club (led by Tucker McConnell) posted a 21.9 pound-per-member average, and the students of Sooner Elementary Sixth Grade of Moore each collected 21.2 pounds of aluminum.

"We certainly appreciate the effort that each of the participants put into this year's Cans 4 Critters contest," Garrett said. "Over the past four years, more than $8,500 has been raised for wildlife conservation efforts from 12 tons of recycled aluminum."

Groups can begin saving cans now to participate in next year's Cans 4 Critters contest, which has an Earthday, April 22 deadline. For an application to participate, write to Cans 4 Critters, Wildlife Diversity Program, 1801 N. Lincoln, Oklahoma City, OK 73105, or call 405/521-4616.

Squirrel season a great hunting opportunity

Turkey season has ended across Oklahoma, but there's no reason to mourn. Some of the state's finest hunting is now under way with the opening of squirrel season.

Running May 15 through Jan. 31, squirrel season is the longest continuous hunting season available to Oklahoma hunters.

Known by oldtimers as "Mulberry Squirrel Season," springtime squirrel hunting enjoys a long, colorful tradition in Oklahoma. For many, it offers an excellent reason to spend the remainder of spring in the woods, but it's also a great time to introduce youngsters to the sport of hunting. The action is fast-paced and the weather is comfortable, so there's no problem with youngsters getting bored.

"This is a great spring for squirrel hunting," said Alan Peoples, assistant chief of wildlife for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "We've got a good mulberry crop this year in many parts of the state, so we've got plenty of squirrels and plenty of places to hunt them. If someone is looking for the perfect chance to take a kid hunting, squirrel season fits the bill."

Once the backbone of Oklahoma's hunting culture, squirrel hunting has taken a back seat in recent years to more glamorous game such as deer and turkey, but it still offers plenty of excitement, even for veteran hunters. Best of all, squirrels are abundant on many of the Department's wildlife management areas, so finding a place to hunt is easy, and there's very little competition.

"Squirrel hunting isn't heavily publicized, but it's still very popular in Oklahoma," Peoples said. "Many people hunt squirrels on their own property, so our wildlife management areas don't get much squirrel hunting pressure, especially in the springtime. This is one of the prettiest and most pleasant times of the year, so you couldn't pick a better time to enjoy our public hunting areas."

To hunt squirrels in Oklahoma, all you need is a resident or non-resident hunting license. Hunters younger than age 16 can hunt squirrels without a license.

Selecting a firearm is a matter of personal preference. A shotgun will take game more dependably, but many hunters enjoy the challenge of hunting squirrels with a .22-caliber rifle, or better yet, a .22-caliber pistol. An even greater challenge is hunting squirrels with a small-caliber muzzleloader.

No matter what you use, it all adds up to a summer's worth of tasty squirrel suppers.

OKC Chapter of QU helps Packsaddle study

Since 1991, the Packsaddle Quail Research Project has become recognized as the nation's most comprehensive quail research program.

Conducted by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Packsaddle study has generated volumes of valuable information that has revolutionized the science of quail management. In doing so, it has also directed national recognition upon the efforts of the Wildlife Department, which is regarded as one of the nation's most progressive state wildlife management agencies.

Of course, projects like the Packsaddle study wouldn't be possible without the partnerships that are so crucial to the Department's operations, said Steve DeMaso, upland game biologist for the Wildlife Department. Through these partnerships, the Department receives manpower, equipment and funding from donations and gifts.

One such partner is the Oklahoma City Chapter of Quail Unlimited, which recently donated $5,000 for the Packsaddle study. Since 1991, DeMaso said, the Oklahoma City Chapter of QU has donated nearly $45,000 toward the Packsaddle Study. These donations have been used to purchase research vehicles, radio telemetry equipment, a computer and to fund the employment of a research technician.

The involvement of groups such as Quail Unlimited helps increase the public's stock in the upland game program, DeMaso explained, creating a much broader band of support than would be otherwise possible.

"This project wouldn't have been possible without the support of partners such as Quail Unlimited," DeMaso said. "The Oklahoma City Chapter of QU has been a strong supporter of the Packsaddle Research Project ever since it began in 1991, and members of the Oklahoma City Chapter can be proud to have contributed to the public's knowledge and awareness of Oklahoma's favorite game bird."

Quail Unlimited is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of America's quail resources. For more information on Quail Unlimited and its activities, contact James Dietsch at (405) 478-7245.

Shoot for Conservation a boon for wildlife

Oklahoma's wildlife got a helping hand recently from a host of friends at the first Quail Unlimited-ODWC Celebrity Shoot for Conservation.

Sponsored by the Oklahoma State Council of Quail Unlimited, the event was held May 8 at Silverleaf Shotgun Sports near Guthrie. Nearly 50 shooters participated, including celebrities like television personality Tim Hartman, former Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Cale Gundy and Greg Duffy, director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

"Everybody had a wonderful time, and the facilities were just outstanding," said Alan Peoples, assistant chief of the Department's Wildlife Division. "The important thing is that it raised awareness of the Department's efforts in managing our state's wildlife resources. It set a great foundation for future events, and we're looking forward to having it again next year."

Winners included Director Duffy in the Class AA Celebrity, while Terry Cheek and Gary Stambaugh shared honors for the Class A division. Ray Gundy won Class B, and Rick Brown won Class C.

After the shoot, participants enjoyed barbecue from Bob's Barbecue of Ada. A silent auction was also held, and participants also won valuable door prizes.

Commission briefed on Senate Bill 199

At its regular May meeting, the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission received an update on the status of Senate Bill 199 from Director Greg Duffy.

After being debated in the Oklahoma Senate and House of Representatives, Senate Bill 199 is currently under consideration in the General Conference Committee on Appropriations, Duffy explained. It enjoys broad support in the House of Representatives, he added, but it's future is still uncertain. Still, there's still plenty of room for optimism.

"Senate Bill 199 has changed complexion several times, but it is still very much alive," Duffy said. "We believe a well-funded Wildlife Department would encourage more people to use our state's natural resources, and that would stimulate an increase in overall tax revenues. Therefore, we believe it is in the state's best interest to support a stronger Wildlife Department."

In other business, the Commission voted to adopt June 5-6 as Free Fishing Days in Oklahoma. During this time, anybody may fish in Oklahoma without having to purchase a fishing license. The purpose of the event is to celebrate the importance of fishing in Oklahoma and to encourage experienced anglers to introduce youngsters or newcomers to the sport.

Also, the Department accepted a $5,000 donation from the Oklahoma City Chapter of Quail Unlimited to be used for the Packsaddle Quail Research Project. The Oklahoma City Chapter of QU has made this donation annually for several years, said Richard Hatcher, chief of the Department's Wildlife Division, and it has been instrumental in funding portions of the nationally acclaimed Packsaddle study.

In addition, the Commission heard a marketing proposal from Robert Taylor, the Department's fiscal services coordinator, concerning a service by Bass Pro Shops, the Department's 1-800 Instant License provider, to offer hunting and fishing license renewals by phone. Under the plan, Taylor explained, the provider would notify license holders about the impending expiration of their hunting and fishing licenses, and that they could renew their licenses by phone for an additional charge of $2.95.

This would make it easier for sportsmen to renew their licenses, Taylor explained, which could ultimately increase license sales. The instant transfer of data to the Department would also make it easier for law enforcement officers to verify whether sportsmen had indeed renewed their licenses before going afield.

The provider would be prohibited from using the Department's list of license holders for any other purpose, Taylor emphasized.

The Commission voted to accept the arrangement in principle and to vote on specific wording of a formal arrangement when details were finalized.

Also, the Commission recognized Carey Head, proprietor of Head Country Barbecue, and Ed Joullian, owner of Red Rock Ranch, for their generous support of the Department's "Women In The Outdoors" program. Bill Spires accepted the award for Joullian. The Department conducts the program in partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation. Oklahoma was the first state to offer the program, said Director Duffy, and thanks to the assistance of volunteers like Ed Joullian and Carey Head, it was a popular success.

In a personnel-related item, the Commission recognized Department employees Albert "Chub" Anderson and Brandon Lehrman for their work in repairing the dam at Lake Hall in Harmon County. Anderson is the Department's Lake Maintenance Supervisor, and Lehrman is a Department game warden stationed in Harmon County. Working together, Anderson and Lehrman repaired the structure at a minimum cost to the Department.

To commemorate Zebco's 50th anniversary, the Commission's will hold its next meeting Monday June 7 at 9 a.m. at Zebco's corporate office in Tulsa.

SB-199 enters New phase

After a remarkable journey through the Oklahoma Legislature, Senate Bill 199 has entered its most critical stage.

Amended and passed by the Oklahoma House of Representatives last month, SB-199 is currently assigned to the General Conference Committee on Appropriations, where members of both houses are working to forge a compromise.

"Senate Bill 199 has changed complexion several times, but it is still very much alive," Duffy said. "We believe a well-funded Wildlife Department would encourage more people to use our state's natural resources, and that would stimulate an increase in overall tax revenues. Therefore, we believe it is in the state's best interest to support a stronger Wildlife Department."

Designed to provide a dependable source of funding for the Wildlife Department, Senate Bill 199 would alleviate many of the Department's financial concerns by reallocating a portion of the state sales tax already paid by sportsmen on hunting and fishing equipment. Under the current provisions of SB-199, the Department would receive 10 percent of that portion of the state sales tax for the first year. The percentage would increase to a cap of 25 percent after four years.

Currently, SB-199 enjoys a resounding majority of support in the House of Representatives, Duffy said, with 70 legislators having signed on as co-authors.

Currently, the Department receives no appropriations from the Legislature. Instead, its funds are generated by the sales of hunting and fishing licenses. It also receives matching funds from the federal Sport Fish Restoration Fund and the Wildlife Restoration Fund. However, hunting and fishing license sales are affected by many variables, and those revenues are becoming increasingly unable to keep pace with the rising costs of the Department's operations.

Without a dependable source of revenue, the Department will be forced to reduce costs by eliminating some services and programs. To reduce maintenance costs, the Department will be forced to close roads on state-owned wildlife management areas, and also reduce the number of food plots on WMAs. Already under a hiring freeze, the Department will also be unable to fill a number of key positions.

New bass and quail plates hit the road

Even if your hunting or fishing trip isn't successful, you can always bring a trophy home with the new largemouth bass and bobwhite quail license plates. Both of these Wildlife Conservation License Plates show your support for Oklahoma's wildlife and provide funds for much-needed conservation projects.

These special tags join the current white-tailed deer and scissor-tailed flycatcher plates. They cost an extra $25 annually, of which $20 is dedicated to state conservation efforts. You can select either a pre-numbered or a personalized tag, although personalized plates can take 2-3 months to receive. Plates also are good one year from the date you receive them and serve as the regular tag on the rear of your vehicle.

To apply for any of the Wildlife Conservation license plates, visit your local tag agency for an application, or call the Wildlife Department at 405/521-4616.