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LAKE HENNESSEY — The lines billowed over Lake Hennessey and the baits lightly plopped onto the waters Sunday morning, as they have each spring for half a century.

A fishing reel’s whir, a soft splash, and a parent’s encouraging words to a child were the quiet yet oft-repeated soundtrack of the 50th annual George Carl Kids Fishing Derby, which drew some 30 children and young teenagers for a morning of angling and the outdoors. Far from their televisions and computers, often out of cellphone reach, there was only the gentle breeze and wispy fog of an Upvalley morning, and the sight of families clustered on the dock and stone breakwater, patiently drawing back their lures a few inches at a time.

For nearly two generations, the fishing derby has been a gift to Napa Valley youngsters from the Active 20-30 Club of Napa, the service group whose late member George Carl formed the event in 1970.

“We see these kids once a year, and we see the same kids catching bigger fish,” said Lucas LeGate, the group’s current co-chair.

While the event has drawn children who come back year after year – and sometimes return as adults with their own sons and daughters in tow – LeGate took equal pride in the number of novices the derby has introduced to fishing.

“It’s immensely satisfying; there’s a reason we’re all here at 6 in the morning,” he said as more than a dozen people cast their lines from the reservoir dock. “A lot of these kids have never fished before, and couple of them came here with loaner poles. “What’s gratifying is seeing kids catch their first fish, doesn’t matter if it’s big or small. I recognize a lot of faces from years past and they’re having a blast.”

“What’s paramount is it’s better than (them) sitting in front of the TV or computer,” said Mike Carson, whose daughter Madyson took part in the derby with her friend Parker McClintick. “School’s about to end, and this is like a head start on summer, and they get to learn a little bit.”

Active 20-30’s involvement with children’s fishing began with Carl, a longtime radio executive and volunteer who for nearly two decades wrote an outdoor-life column for the Napa Valley Register. Carl, who died in 2007, founded the derby to give underprivileged children an entry into the pastime, and Active 20-30 has staged the event each May or June at Lake Hennessey, the Napa city reservoir east of St. Helena.

Entrants ages 3 to 15 are divided into three age ranges, and can win trophies for pulling in the longest trout, bass or bluegill in their group. A state Department of Fish and Game truck stocks the reservoir with fish before the derby.

A scoreboard for Sunday’s derby even included a square labeled “other” – for the caterpillars, dragonflies or other random catches a small child or first-timer might pull up. “If a 4-year-old gets skunked, we still want him to get something,” LeGate said with a smile.

Meanwhile, success for some other fishers was much more visible and obvious.

“We got an award winner!” Sam Gracy of Napa called out as he and his 10-year-old son Bradlee, holding a silvery carp from his rod, strolled from Lake Hennessey to a measuring table in the parking lot. “We’re gonna eat that fish, that’s what we’re gonna do.”

A ruler appeared to confirm the father’s boast; the carp was 17 ¼ inches mouth to tail. The number, and Bradlee’s name, duly appeared on a nearby dry-erase board displaying the morning’s top catches.

Back on the dock, 8-year-old Kaleb Latunski of Napa was making up through quantity – and enjoyment – what his quarry lacked in size.

“He’s only catching the little stuff, but he’s probably caught eight or nine fish today,” said his father Joe. “I’m seeing the excitement, and it doesn’t matter the size. It’s something he’ll remember for a lifetime.”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.