A Reel Opportunity — Empowering Youth to Catch the Joy of Fishing

By Dana Bivens, a Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Portland/Vancouver Urban Refuge Program works with partners to support the community in nature and conservation education, increase access to the outdoors, and provide recreational opportunities. Wil Warren is one of those partners. We couldn’t do what we do without the dedication and support of the many professionals out there who are working to make the outdoors more accessible to everyone.

I’m Hooked, Inc. Founder Wil Warren. Photo credit: Mark Davis

To Wil Warren, fishing is more than just catching fish. Fishing is an opportunity to connect with family and friends, learn about the natural world, and to disconnect from the pressures and stress of city life. “I remember my dad waking my siblings and I up before sunrise to take us fishing when I was a kid. My father worked nights and so I rarely saw him during the week. But when he would take us fishing, it was the highlight of our week.” It was this fondness for fishing and the memories of family bonding that stuck with Wil, motivating him to dedicate his life and career towards helping children and families experience the same joy he felt as a child when outdoors.

Wil Warren and his friends pictured as children
Wil Warren (yellow shirt) with his friends growing up in NE Portland, OR. Photo credit: Wil Warren

A native of Oregon, Wil grew up in a majority black neighborhood in northeast Portland. His parents both worked during the week and finances were tight, so on the weekends his family took advantage of local public lands and recreational facilities to escape city life and spend a day in the country. Portland is located within a short distance of the Pacific coast, snowy mountains, old growth forests, and high mountain deserts. Additionally, the Portland metro area has numerous parks, trails, and outdoor spaces to explore. Weekend fishing trips provided Wil and his siblings the opportunity to explore local streams and woods, examine insects and plants, and to learn about the many different fish in the area without venturing too far from home. As an adult, Wil wanted to share this experience with others, and to help youth who struggle to find their footing in urban settings.

In 1988, while working at Portland’s Child Welfare office, Wil and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife began what is now a celebration of a Free Fishing Weekend for at-risk youth. This event took place at Henry Hagg Lake, near Portland, providing an opportunity for children to get out of the city and spend a day learning new skills. For most of the kids involved, this was their first time in the great outdoors and the trip turned out to be a resounding success. That first morning Wil remembered some of the children, many of whom were in the foster system, seemed unconformable and disengaged. By the end of the day, these same kids approached Wil asking “when can we do this again?!” Over the next 11 years, as Wil hosted additional Free Fishing Weekends, he felt empowered by the success of the trips and motivated to help even more kids. He began laying the groundwork for an independent organization to do just that, and in 2009 his nonprofit, I’m Hooked, Inc, was officially born.

Left: Wil enjoys touching the lives of youth by inspiring kids to explore the outdoors and discover the of the Joy of Fishing. Right: OOH Look at what we have here! It’s breakfast before the Henry Hagg Lake event. Photo credit: Wil Warren

Over its multi-year history, I’m Hooked, Inc. has remained true to its mission of providing positive youth development through nature-based experiences. Wil and his team use outdoor education to empower kids who struggle with social disconnection, family conflict, drug and alcohol dependency, poverty, and mental and physical health challenges. Knowledge is power and learning new skills helps kids engage in activities apart from the normal stresses of home life while gaining confidence and joy from outdoor recreation.

Fishing also has a way of building bridges and helping kids find common ground when social barriers prevent them from doing so. During one of the Free Fishing Weekend events at Hagg Lake, Child Welfare brought a group of young women to the event who were members of rival gangs. Many of the chaperones were concerned that this would create conflict at the event. Wil remembers saying “just wait, it’ll be ok” and handing the girls fishing poles and bait. By the end of the afternoon, these adversaries were friends and played along the lakeshore while catching fish and letting go of their rivalry. Many former participants have gone on to become volunteers and helped lead events, and others have shared their fishing knowledge with friends and family, creating a lasting legacy of fishing, community, and independence.

Hagg Lake Free Family Fishing Weekend was a success! Photo credit: I’m Hooked, Inc.

In 2017, I’m Hooked began working with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Portland-Vancouver Urban Refuge Program. This program, established to help urban residents connect with the outdoors, provided funding to I’m Hooked to support marketing, outreach, and equipment so more kids could participate in the fishing events. “With the expanded support of the Service, we were empowered to seek out and improve our means and methods of engagement with the public by promoting our community and outreach activities,” Wil said. “We were able to update our website and expand our ability to capture more accurate demographic information. This helps us evaluate our successes and increase our event planning strategies for future events so we can obtain our outreach goals more effectively.” I’m Hooked is staffed by volunteers and has no paid employees, so this collaboration was essential in helping the nonprofit reach a wider audience.

Left: The USFWS has been a major supporter of I’m Hooked since 2016, co-producing events like the Hagg Lake Free Family Fishing Weekend and offering families connections to additional outdoor opportunities at nearby National Wildlife Refuges. Photo credit: Craig Strong. Right: I’m Hooked and the USFWS teamed up on the Get Kids Into Nature trailer, a mobile activity station designed to capture kids’ imaginations through fishing skill-building and hands-on environmental education. Photo credit: USFWS

The partnership between I’m Hooked and the Service has helped thousands of Portland area kids and their families get outside and get fishing. In 2018, I’m Hooked and the Service co-hosted the Free Fishing Weekend at Hagg Lake. That weekend dozens of volunteers and partners hosted a variety of themed activities including fishing, hunting, and archery skill-building, conservation education, and community safety. 2018 was a record year for the weekend event, with over 1,500 participants. This time around, approximately 30 volunteer boat captains lending their boats, time, and expertise to offer many kids a first-time boating and fishing experience.

In 2018 and 2019, I’m Hooked participated in the bird festivals held Ridgefield and Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuges. These festivals draw hundreds of families from the Portland metro area and Wil and his team set up a fishing education station, called “Backyard Bass,” where kids could learn to cast and reel using rods and plastic fish. “There was always a line of kids waiting to fish!” Wil remembers. “They would stand in line, practice fishing, and come right back!” Many children have been inspired by the work that Wil and his team do and have formed lasting memories of the outdoors and fishing.

Positive youth development is the focus of I’m Hooked, and making a first catch at the Hagg Lake Free Family Fishing weekend goes a long way toward building excitement for the outdoors. This 30+ year tradition of I’m Hooked is designed to offer families a no-cost, safe, and successful introduction to fishing and fun in the outdoors. Photo credit: Craig Strong

After decades of helping kids and empowering the next generation of conservation enthusiasts, Wil and I’m Hooked were recognized by the former Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith. In a surprise visit, the Director presented Wil with an autographed book and a gold coin in recognition of his outstanding contribution to connecting kids with the outdoors. Wil recalls that this was “one of the biggest honors of my career with I’m Hooked.” This dream of helping kids has become a reality and Wil hopes to continue these efforts for decades to come.

Wil Warren standing with former USFWS Director Aurelia Skipwith as she presents him with a gift for his contribution to outdoor education
Wil receiving recognition from former USFWS Director Aurelia Skipwith. Photo credit: Brent Lawrence

If you want to fish or learn about fishing, here are some resources to get you started:

Because of Covid-19 safety concerns all I’m Hooked activities this year will be held in a small group format. Please contact Wil for more information. Email: imhookedinc1@gmail.com or visit his website: https://imhookedinc.org/

For more fishing resources nationwide, check out: https://www.takemefishing.org/

Learn how to fish from Ashley Nicole Lewis: https://fb.watch/3LDSWz7QRi/

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USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.