An initiative started in 2009 that is likely to be traditional in that it has grown in leaps and bounds since its inception, continued on Saturday, May 12, in Nesquehoning when the Nesquehoning Conservation Club held the 4th Annual Connell McCall Memorial Fishing Tournament. The event attracted over 100 youths, ranging from 3-15 years of age, while hundreds of adults participated in the event held under sunny skies, including many from the county and region, as well as others from as far away as the Lehigh Valley and Harrisburg.

While the youths were captivated by the aura of fishing the attractive Nesquehoning Creek, and attempting to lure the hundreds of trout stocked in it, the event underscored two important missions of the day: memorializing the late Lansford resident, who died in 2006 at the age of 39 but not before leaving his love for the sport as one of his legacies; and accentuating the job the Nesquehoning Conservation Club has done in transforming the creek to a great fishing spot in the short time since the club was founded in 2005.

Bob Perrin of Coaldale, a lifelong friend of McCall who heads up the Friends of Connell McCall, and Sam Kitchko, president of the NCC, both appropriately praised the derby as "a great day for the kids and for Nesquehoning."

He loved fishing

Perrin recollected McCall "was a big part of our group growing up," explaining "he was always there in friendship." He added, "After Connell passed away, some of us spoke about wanting to do something to perpetuate his name and the things he loved, and so we came up with the idea of a fishing derby."

One of the group was Nick Digiglio, a member of the NCC. He recalled, "Connell loved fishing, and the best part of it was he loved taking his nieces fishing, giving them the appreciation of being outdoors, so a derby seemed so appropriate."

George Brimmer, another of "the gang," noted, "Connell was one of us. He loved the outdoors. On the first day of fishing every year, he was always on the creek with the group of us."

Timing had a role in the tournament's formation, in that the Friends of Connell McCall began contemplating the derby idea at a time when the NCC was beginning to take its conservation efforts into full swing. Perrin recalled, "We went to Bill Richards, a club member who was working for Rep. Keith McCall at the time. Bill played a key role in getting this started. It took two years to really get it going, but the NCC was great. They were cleaning up the creek. It now has a supply of life in it and, hopefully, this event will get bigger and bigger every year."

Digiglio said, "The first year was wonderful. We knew it (the derby) was going to take off. Each year, it's getting better. People say it's the best derby they ever went to."

Richards, too, remembers helping to start the derby. He said, "We talked about it when the club organized in 2005. As far as naming it, we brought the idea to Sam (Kitchko) and he took it and ran with it. He liked the idea of having it every year."

"I was all for it (the idea)," Kitchko said, "And so was everyone else in the club. There was little discussion on it. Members simply said 'let's do it.'"

"So when the NCC got involved, the tourney snowballed," Perrin noted. "The club is giving the kids of the PV and surrounding areas something special, something local. They didn't always have this creek to fish in, but now it's special, and today is really special."

Club's efforts

Kitchko recollected how the Nesquehoning Creek cleanup became a passionate goal of the club, which has about 60 members. Acid mine water and sewage previously contaminated the waters, and following the installation of the borough's new sewage treatment plant, and water runoff projects, the club activities really picked up.

"We cleaned up the creek, but it was a joint effort," Kitchko said. He explained, "The state wasn't stocking it (the creek), but Lehigh-Carbon Community College (which has a campus in Nesquehoning right next to the creek), obtained a Growing Greener grant and used the funding to do a stream evaluation and testing program. Together, with the club, we got the state involved and it was deemed able to support fish."

Richards said the late John "Sonny" Kovatch played a key role in the process with the "first hollow project."

Kitchko said the NCC actually stocked the creek before the state did, but said, "When the creek was deemed approved, the state started stocking the creek twice a year, putting about 600 fish in each time." For the derby, the club stocked about 750 fish in the waters.

The club president, meanwhile spoke about the NCC activities. He said, "This organization is a conservation club. Its mission is to protect the Nesquehoning Creek Watershed, which includes also the streams, mountain and hollows. We want to preserve that for future generations to use."

Many club members do many things, he said, including Joe Drosdak and Kitchko, who often "police it," cleaning up garbage; Bob Dunstan, who spends a lot of time cutting brush; and "a lot of behind the scenes work that make the creek so beautiful," Kitchko said.

"It is one of the neatest streams around," Richards said. The club has also placed benches along the banks of the creek for public use. One of them is in memory of McCall.

Richards, meanwhile, praised Kitchko's leadership, saying, he "oversees what is truly a first-class conservation club."

One of the club members' ongoing projects is to rid the area of Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant that grows along the creek and nearby mountainside that is hard to get rid of."

Great day for kids

Saturday, though, was a great day for children in the region, thanks to many people, including members of the Friends of Connell McCall, the NCC, and many persons who contributed to the financial success of the tournament. Funds were utilized to stock the creek, while other revenues will go towards the club's ongoing conservation initiatives.

As for the tourney participants, they received over 100 prizes collectively that were secured through the efforts of the tourney organizers. A $250 gift certificate from Cabela's was donated by Thomas Parambo of Summit Hill. Prizes went to youths who caught the biggest first, and those who caught the first limits in age categories. Others who weren't so lucky in catching a trout also received prizes as every youth who remained for the noon program after three hours of fishing took home a prize.

Meanwhile, something that started as an idea to keep the memory of a friend alive actually made for an enjoyable day for many youths.

Perrin said, "Connell struggled. He was sick, but he never complained, and he always tried to do his best. Even in the face of adversity, he persevered, whether it was fishing, softball or anything else. This day was all about what he would have liked to see accomplished here, like it has been. If it (the derby) gives one kid something to do, rather than hang out on the corner, and if it changes a life, Connell would appreciate that. He would be here, and he'd be the first one to help the kids...that's just who he was, and we miss him."