Several years ago, Carolyn Estes faced a dilemma.
A worker with the Oologah Lake Leader newspaper in northeastern Oklahoma, Estes wanted to keep a fishing derby alive for local youngsters, an event that her friend Jackie Donegan had created before health issues sidelined her.
“I asked her if I could take it over and run with it,” said Estes.
Given the green light to do so, Estes now needed to decide what to call the event – was it a fishing tournament like those seen on Outdoor Channel or was it a derby?
So Estes asked Major League Fishing pro Edwin Evers and his Bassmaster Elite Series brother-in-law Terry Butcher what the difference was between a derby and a tournament.
“Depends on where you live and how you talk,” the pair quipped.
In other words, there really isn’t any difference, especially since the goal is to get kids involved in fishing and spawn a lifelong love of the sport in their young lives.
Click the image for "Kid's Fishing Derby Day" photo gallery
Evers and Butcher - who both live in nearby Talala, Okla. – were intrigued by the idea and agreed to partner with Estes.
So did the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which offered several ponds as possible sites for the derby to be held on.
The first year, Estes and her co-workers weren’t sure what to expect. When 150 kids showed up to fish, they all knew that they were on to something big.
“This is year number six,” said Rafe Perryman with the Corps of Engineers. “It’s (a big event and it has) gotten a little bigger each year.”
Perryman said that “everything out here has been donated through one organization or another.” And that’s not to mention the time and effort given by the dozens of volunteers who staff the event, bait hooks with worms, measure fish for prizes, and keep kids having fun.
One of those volunteers is Butcher, a former Bassmaster Elite Series touring pro with two B.A.S.S. wins on his resume.
“Everything is free of charge and you don’t even have to have a fishing pole to participate.”
– Terry Butcher
“We’re having a (barrel) of fun today,” said Butcher at this year’s derby. “We’re catching perch, bass, crappie, walleye and catfish. And turtles – I’ve weighed everything here today.
“We give away a ton of prizes, plenty of trophies, and even life jackets for everyone that’s here,” he added.
“Everything is free of charge and you don’t even have to have a fishing pole to participate. We’ve got poles that we’ll loan the kids so that they can come out and fish for a couple of hours and have a good time.”
After recording the catch, the fishing derby participant, Terry Butcher and the fish
pose for the camera. Photo Credit: Jeff Phillips
If it sounds like the Oologah Lake Kids Fishing Derby Day has grown to become a “can’t miss” annual event for the region, it has.
With crowds as high as 250 kids some years – along with their parents, grandparents, and/or guardians – the event is now one of the best in the Sooner State, if not the nation.
“Our goal is to get kids out, teach them how to fish, and to educate them (about the outdoors),” said Estes, noting that the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is an educational partner in the event and an integral part of its success.
In fact, it’s such key partnerships that make the event what it is each year.
Estes notes that the Oologah derby happens each year because numerous caring adults, local and regional businesses, state government agencies and interested organizations join together to ensure that the event is a big success.
In doing so, such partners provide the necessary funds and energy that allows for the purchase of properly-fitting life jackets to be given to each kid along with tackle, bait, lures, prizes, food and water.
While most such partnerships are local and regional, not all are. In fact, such recognizable names as Bass Pro Shops, Lowrance, Gene Larew Tackle, Booyah, Yum and others were all on the sponsorship list for the 2014 event.
“We have some pretty heavy hitters that partner with us,” said Estes. “Without them, this would not be possible.”
One of those heavy hitters is Major League Fishing champion Edwin Evers who annually gives his time and energy to help put on this event held virtually in his own backyard.
“This is awesome,” said Evers. "There’s prizes for the biggest fish, the smallest fish, (for tagged fish), even the turtle (that was caught). We’ve got different groups ranging from age two all the way up to like 15 or 16. It’s just a lot, a lot of fun.”
Evers joked that it could be even more fun if the event would eventually adopt Major League Fishing’s SCORETRACKER LIVE tournament scoring system.
“That would be a lot of fun,” he laughed. “We’d have everybody’s cell phones out here and you could know at any time ‘Hey, I need to catch one an inch bigger than my nearest competitor (in the derby).’
“We have to cut this thing off at 250 kids because our pond just won’t hold any more.”
– Edwin Evers
“That’s the neatest thing about that SCORETRACKER LIVE, you know in an instant where you stand in a tournament. That would be awesome to have it here in this kid’s fishing derby.”
Except for this fact: It might actually lure in even more kids to an annual event that has already outgrown its already generous-size facilities.
Major League Fishing and B.A.S.S pro Edwin Evers was always nearby to help the
youngsters as needed. Photo Credit: Jeff Phillips
“We have to cut this thing off at 250 kids because our pond just won’t hold any more,” said Evers. “We had kids lined up all the way around the pond (this year).”
Estes' goal is to make sure such big crowds continue to show up each year in what she calls the “most important event I do all year long.
“I want our children away from the remote controls and away from the electronics games,” she said. “If we don’t teach them (to love fishing and the outdoors) at this age, how fun fishing and the out of doors can be, we’re going to lose them.”
Such a sad outcome – losing the current generation when it comes to outdoors recreation – is something that Estes isn’t willing to accept.
“Some of my happiest memories were sitting on the bank fishing with my dad, my brothers, my sister and my mom,” she said. “I even went frog gigging – I was the light person.”
All of that birthed a lifelong passion for the outdoors world in Estes, one that she is eager to pass on in any way possible.
“I’ve hunted and I’ve fished all of my life and it’s an important part of my life,” said Estes. “I instilled that love in my son and he’s instilling it in his two sons and new step-son.”
“Being outside, learning the skills, and having the time to enjoy what we have without being inside all of the time is just extremely important to me.”
– Carolyn Estess
Aside from passing along her love of the outdoors to her own immediate family, Estes also is consumed with the idea of doing so at a larger level by way of the annual Oologah Lake Kid’s Fishing Derby Day.
“Being outside, learning the skills, and having the time to enjoy what we have without being inside all of the time is just extremely important to me,” she said.
“If we don’t do (this) now, we’re going to lose them.”
Evers has similar feelings.
“It’s really important to me,” said the 2013 MLF Challenge Cup Champion from Florida’s Lake Istokpoga.
“My mom was the one that took me fishing early in my childhood and this event gives parents an opportunity – even if they don’t know a lot about fishing – (to do the same).”
That’s why Evers, Butcher and several other local pros invest their time and energy in the derby each year.v“We just try (to do what we can do to help them),” said Evers, an eight-time winner on the B.A.S.S. tournament trail.
“It’s just a great event to introduce your kids to fishing and it doesn’t cost a lot of money. Literally, it only costs what it takes you to drive here. And it’s a great memory that you can make with your kids.”
From the big smiles evident on the faces of a couple of hundred kids and their parents, that would indeed seem to be the case.
One of those smiles belonged to five-year-old Hunter Jenkins, an Oologah Lake area kindergarten student.
“Good,” said Jenkins in shy fashion when asked what kind of day he had enjoyed at the derby. “I caught 34 perch.”
That’s a pretty good effort by any angler, even tournament pros like Butcher and Evers.
In fact, when asked if he thought his angling skills at the derby were up to the challenge of beating the pros that were helping out, Jenkins smiled big and nodded his head in the affirmative.
And that might be one of the Oologah Lake Kids Fishing Derby’s biggest wins, the spawning of yet another lifelong love affair with the sport of fishing.
One that one day might even take a youngster from casting a worm into a small northeastern Oklahoma pond to the sport’s highest levels of completion on a stage where he or she is hoisting up a Major League Fishing trophy after beating the likes of Evers, or even KVD.