November 1, 2022

A Career of Education and Fishing: 27 years with the Illinois Urban Fishing Program

A graphic with a photo a fishing instructor mid-lesson pointing to a small fish caught on the line she is holding up. Next to her is a group of children wearing warm coats and hats. In the background is a lake and a shoreline with trees. Below the photo is a quote saying how the instructor is retiring soon and is grateful for her experience and for her colleagues.

Photos courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The Illinois Urban Fishing Program was launched by the then Illinois Department of Conservation (now Illinois Department of Natural Resources or IDNR) in 1985. This initiative allowed Illinois Region 2 (northeast Illinois) fisheries biologists to assist organizations during their fishing derbies and to stock fish in several Chicago Park District lagoons.

I was hired in 1995 to develop an environmental education program that could operate in the Chicago school system to provide students with the knowledge of how the aquatic food chain works and its connection to humanity. That program included subjects such as fish anatomy, the families of fish in Illinois, the invasive species found in Lake Michigan, the meaning of being an ethical angler and how to safely cast with a spin cast reel. After attending an educational presentation, students would schedule a spring trip to fish at the lagoon of their choice or in Lake Michigan.

As a Natural Resources Education Program Coordinator, I would provide bait and equipment for the students to use. Many teachers were surprised by how much they and their students enjoyed the experience. Educators often stated that they saw such positive impacts on the children while fishing, and the program opening their eyes to a different side of the personality of each student. I am pleased to affirm that over the past 27 plus years I have visited an average of 30 schools and presented 110 environmental education clinics for 2,900 students each year.

During the months of June, July and August, eight seasonal clinic instructors have been hired to provide posters and hands-on presentations to groups of youth and adults at Chicago Park District lagoons. Some of the organizations our program has worked with include summer camps, summer schools, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Chicago Department of Aging, YMCAs, church groups, block clubs, the Chicago Police Department, Friends of the Chicago River, Friends of the Park, Shedd Aquarium, The Field Museum, Fishin’ Buddies, Chicago Youth Centers, Leave No Child Inside and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. Each year, the Chicago summer program has provided fishing for 9,000 to 12,000 participants.

When I started with this project, few states had established an Urban Fishing Program, and many were trying to ascertain how to set up a successful venture. As a leader from Illinois, I was asked to attend a conference in Oklahoma City to speak about the Chicago Urban Fishing Program and how it functioned. It was quite an honor being chosen to represent the state and I was able to share ideas to promote and enhance our fishing clinics as a model for other states trying to do so.

Fishing can create memories, enhance family unity, build self-esteem, reduce stress, instill stewardship, create a peaceful space to enjoy nature, and be rewarding to those who catch fish!

The IDNR Urban Fishing Program currently has three full-time coordinators who support 20 summer interns and extensive volunteer networks. Annually, these devoted educators hold or sponsor approximately 1,800 fishing and non-fishing programs for nearly 100,000 participants across Illinois. Visit Urban Fishing for clinic details, locations and activities.

Brenda McKinney is a Natural Resources Education Program Coordinator for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She received a B.A. in Sociology with a minor in education from the University of Illinois Chicago campus. She was born and raised in the city of Chicago and taught in the Chicago Public School system.

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Question: I am a Chicago public school teacher and have been fishing with Ms. McKinney for many, many years. I know that she retired and when I contacted the Friends of the Park for our yearly May fishing trip they informed me that they do not have permission from IDNR to fish because they don’t have a contact person anymore. I have 100 5th graders that are very disappointed. Is there a way that we can fish at Montrose Harbor this year? Is there a new contact person? Thank you!

Question: Where will you travel next??? A sincere congratulations Brenda—Tom Palmisano