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A home run of a derby

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As a teacher and principal in Middletown, R.I., Steve Ponte has influenced thousands of children. Outside the classroom, he’s also been a role model and mentor for young people through a kids’ fishing tournament he has held through the school for the last 28 years.

“As soon as I got into the public schools, I started it,” says Ponte, 59, principal at the Forest Avenue School (kindergarten through the third grade). “It’s been a blast. It’s getting kids into fishing, being with your kids, fishing with your kids. It’s fun.”

Our industry needs more of these fun grassroots events that have staying power, such as the Forest Avenue School Fishing Tourney. Ponte estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the students who participate have never fished. “We teach them how to put the worm on,” he says. “This is their first experience.” And he makes sure it’s a good one.

Some of the derby kids from 20 years ago, when Ponte taught middle school, are now young adults and avid anglers. “The old middle-school kids have their own boats now,” he says. “They’re out fishing all the time. They’ll say, ‘Mr. Ponte, I got three 30-pounders this week.’ It’s been a boon, a real benefit to everybody.”

Ponte is a longtime angler who grew up in Middletown and Newport and learned to fish from his father. A licensed captain who was a lifeguard for 30 years, Ponte is also the harbormaster in Middletown during the summer. He believes strongly in the value of introducing young people to the outdoor world, especially through fishing.

“It’s exciting,” says Ponte, who runs the school tournament in conjunction with Sam’s Bait & Tackle Shop and proprietor Sam Toland. “They just have to get out there and get a line wet.”

Times have changed since he started the tournament nearly three decades ago, but Ponte says kids are still kids. “Their eyes still light up when they hook one,” he says. “You just have to get them out. And the parents have fun. It’s interacting with their kids.”

This year the tournament ran over 16 days — after school and on weekends — and included a community fishing day at a local pond on a Sunday afternoon that attracted about 50 students and parents. The only rule is that the children must fish with an adult.

The kids weigh their catch at Sam’s shop in Middletown. Ponte encourages them to bring the fish to the shop in a bucket of water and then to release them — or take them home to eat. They also take a photo of their catch next to a ruler. “It’s the honor system,” he says.

The Kiwanis Club of Aquidneck Island, the tackle shop and the Forest Avenue PTG sponsor the event.

“Every kid who catches a fish gets something,” Ponte says. And the categories vary from year to year, depending on what the children manage to haul in — from largemouth bass to sunfish, sea robins to eels, fresh and salt water. It doesn’t matter to Ponte or the kids. A tug is a tug; a fish is a fish.

The event culminates in an awards ceremony in the school cafeteria at lunch. The big-fish winner gets a rod and reel and a check for $10. Somewhere between 30 and 35 awards are given out. This year, the winner held the rod over his head while his schoolmates applauded.

“They cheer,” Ponte says. “It’s like the World Series for them.”

Ponte and his students are hitting home runs.

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