It was a no-brainer for John Peck when his juvenile probation officer let him choose between anger management classes or regular fishing trips with other kids and professional river guides.
The seventh-grader at Pocatello’s Kinport Academy was among a small group of area middle and high school students in the first “troop” of a new 16-week diversionary program called Trout Scouts.
Local outdoorsmen and public officials formed the program under the belief that when it comes to rehabilitating children, the punishment needn’t always fit the crime. Rather, Trout Scouts aims to prove that teaching children to cast a fly rod long and straight can be an effective way to keep them on the straight and narrow.
In addition to fishing trips and lessons in entomology, fish biology and fly tying, the program includes a curriculum designed to teach children to make good choices while avoiding drugs, alcohol and smoking. The next 16-week class begins in January.
“Just think. One minute you get in trouble and you get put on probation. The next thing you know you’ve got a free 16-week fly fishing program,” said Larry Larsen, who hosts Trout Scouts meetings at his Snake River Fly Shop in Old Town Pocatello.
Todd Mauger, chief juvenile probation officer, has loaned Peck a fly rod and gear, enabling the boy to continue improving as an angler now that his time in the program has come to end. Some of the most devoted Trout Scouts will also be invited back to serve as peer mentors for future groups.
Peck has found fly fishing to be relaxing — putting his mind in the “right place” — and he says he’s grown in confidence from learning a new skill.
At first, Peck had trouble casting his line beyond 5 feet.
“Now I can get like 20 feet and keep it up in the air,” Peck said, adding fly fishing has become his “main go-to.”
Area river guide Brandon Morrison had the rapt attention of a half-dozen Trout Scouts attending their final meeting on Wednesday night as he lectured on the lifecycle of an aquatic caddis fly.
“What stage is this when it’s hatching?” Morrison asked, referring to a diagram on a projection screen.
Charles Gibson, a Hawthorne Middle School student, offered the prompt and confident response: “Pupa.”
After the brief biology lesson, the Trout Scouts practiced tying flies — making “wet” patterns that sink below the surface and mimic the pupa stage of a caddis fly.
Gibson is participating voluntarily in Trout Scouts. Near the end of last school year, Gibson got in trouble for vandalism. Through his involvement in the juvenile justice system, he got to take part in a guided float trip of the Henry’s Fork, called River Buddies. The trip was established in 2008 as a diversionary program for children from 10 to 13 years old.
Gibson learned of Trout Scouts through his involvement in River Buddies. Though he’d already met his court-ordered requirements before Trout Scouts started, he didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity.
Gibson agrees teaching children to fish is a good way to lure them “away from dumb stuff and getting in trouble with the law.”
Mauger, who is also involved in River Buddies, said that about a dozen participants get to go on each float trip. And they’re allowed to keep the fly rods and gear they use.
Mauger took part in forming Trout Scouts largely to provide children an outlet to continue using skills gained through River Buddies.
“These kids are coming back to the community and they have all of the gear and this drive to use it,” Mauger said. “Those kids who are interested in that can keep doing it and make it a lifetime hobby.”
Thinking like a fish
Funds for Trout Scouts program supplies come from the Idaho Office of Drug Policy’s Partnership for Success grant. Chessie Meyer, who oversees the grant for the Southeastern Idaho Public Health Department, said the program was awarded $4,500 annually for five years.
“One of the requirements of my grant is that we do some alternative activities with youth,” Meyer said. “I had heard about River Buddies program, and we wanted to figure out a way to provide something for the kids that was more than once a year.”
The ultimate goal is to obtain nonprofit status for Trout Scouts so that it can continue operating independently after the grant expires, Meyer said.