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One for the record books - Fishing Museum

One for the record books - Fishing MuseumMove over mouse, there's a trophy attraction in south Florida that's netting schools of visitors from all over the world!

Fishing's answer to the Magic Kingdom has its own manmade lake, complete with a 4-1/2-acre wetland and inside it's got action, animation and animals. It's all about one of America's favorite pastimes and it's just 200 miles south of Orlando.

Over 70% of boaters today are also anglers but all boaters will feel right at home at the International Game Fish Association Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum. There's a marina outside where you can see a variety of modern fishing boats plus the restored 1933 sister to Ernest Hemingway's sportfishing boat Pilar.

About 100,000 people a year visit the $32-million facility that opened in Dania Beach, FL, five years ago this month. Even those who don't fish or have a boat can expect an Adventureland experience.

The hands-down highlight of any visit is the Catch Gallery. There you can strap into a fighting chair and battle a 300-lb. virtual blue marlin with rod, reel and video screen. Four other fishing simulators allow you to experience a hook-and-line battle with everything from a large mouth bass busting through the lily pads to sailfish hammering your ballyhoo bait in the Gulf Stream. Then, too, you can quietly lust over an outstanding collection of historic rods, reels, lures and other fishing gear that make you wish you'd kept Grandpa's tackle box.

Curious about the Everglades? Without traveling an hour to the west and 100 years back in time you can get the pre-development picture of south Florida in a $1.3 million wetlands environment outside the building, complete with alligators.

Inside you can peruse 8,000 world angling records dating to 1910; after all, record-keeping and sporting ethics have been IGFA's hallmark for 65 years. But there's another, even deeper side to this organization, a conservation ethic that gives a lot of hope for the future of our marine resources.

Icons and Inventory

Conservation is the cornerstone of this venerable fishing organization, reports Rob Kramer, IGFA's sixth president since 1939. Its first, Dr. William King Gregory, director of ichthyology and comparative anatomy at the American Museum of Natural History, was a passionate conservationist.

"He saw the recreational angler as the key to gaining more scientific data, to learning more about the resource and how better to protect that resource," Kramer says. "That's just as true today and it's something that our members truly value."

Over Kramer's head as he speaks in the Fishing Hall of Fame hang replicas of record fish. The largest mount is a 2,664-lb. great white shark caught in Australia in 1959; the smallest a 1 lb.-12 oz. red-breasted sunfish caught in Florida's Suwannee River 20 years ago. Below each, in the stone floor, is a metal plaque identifying the species and listing its world record weight. When records are broken, the plaques can be changed.

As you begin to explore the 60,000-sq. ft. facility and the seven exhibit galleries that open off the Fishing Hall of Fame, the analogies come easy: "As Cooperstown is to base-ball ... As Nashville is to country music ..."

Sure it's the archive for all those world records and its library boasts 13,000 fishing books dating to the 15th century. But there's nothing musty or dusty about the IGFA. The facility is 21st century all the way in its exhibits, its interpretive displays and its message. Of nine organization objectives, only three relate to record keeping and fishing's heritage. The other six are grounded in conservation.

Fishing's Royalty

New York department store magnate Michael Lerner was the driving force behind formation of IGFA. He was an avid angler who, along with his equally avid wife Helen, pursued trophy fish worldwide.

"Beginning in 1936, in association with the American Museum of Natural History, the Lerners organized and financed seven scientific expeditions to gather information on giant saltwater gamefish--tunas, marlin, swordfish and sharks," Kramer explains.

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During these trips, the husband-wife duo hauled in specimens, by rod and reel, which the museum's scientists dissected on the spot or at a nearby makeshift laboratory. This proved an unprecedented foundation of scientific information about the diet and migratory patterns of the ocean's gamefish.

"There were no such things as world records then," Kramer says. "Fishing clubs in various parts of the world kept their own records, but each club had different rules so there was no consistency to the information they collected."

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Lerner then headed up an effort to form an international record-keeping body and he recruited Dr. Gregory as president. He, in turn, recruited novelist Ernest Hemmingway to be IGFA's first vice president, a position "Papa" held until his death in 1961.

Gregory enlisted the aid of Francesca LaMont, curator of fisheries at the museum, as secretary. LaMont got record keeping help from the fishing editor of Field and Stream Magazine and the organization began by keeping world records from saltwater. In the meantime, the magazine continued to keep freshwater records as it had since 1910. Finally in 1978, the two collections became one under IGFA.

Today, thanks to private benefactors dedicated to angling and conservation, you can peruse all those records at the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum.

Back to the Future

Kiosks around the main gallery feature Hall of Fame inductees, including tackle innovators, boatbuilders, scientists, fishing writers and, of course, anglers. TV touch screens allow you to search for information about members like Ernest Hemingway, western novelist Zane Grey and baseball great Ted Williams.

Over 120 flags from every nation where the IGFA has members ring the room. Exhibit galleries branch off the hall, featuring fish biology and habitat, all types of tackle, from ancient times to the present day, and popular fishing destinations with video from the Amazon, Africa, the South Seas, Alaska and Chesapeake Bay.

The Discovery Room has fishing related games and toys for the youngest anglers and another exhibit highlights the IGFA Junior Angler Program (see "Big Fish for Small Fry," BoatU.S. Magazine, July 2003).

The IGFA library features the world's largest collection of fishing books, angling literature, films, photographs, artifacts and references on fish and recreational fishing. One particular treasure is a copy of the first tract on fishing in English, Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, published by a British nun in 1496.

Walking the Talk

With gamefish conservation imbedded in its mission, how does IGFA walk the ever-narrower, increasingly contentious line between resource use--catching fish for sport--and ensuring healthy stocks of fish today and for tomorrow? Standing in the Fishing Hall of Fame as he answers the question, Kramer is well aware that the fish replicas hanging over his head representing world records also stand for countless fish that will never swim again.

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"We have many tools we can use," he explains. "For example, a year and a half ago we looked at the large, big-dollar billfish tournaments around world where they bring the fish home dead, because there just is not enough confidence that people will be truthful and honest if the fish were released.

"So we started a certified observer program in which we rigorously train volunteers to fish in tournaments with the sole purpose to trying to convert them to release formats," he says. "So far, we've successfully converted a couple of tournaments to no-kill and convinced a few more to add release formats in some classes."

Kramer says the number one issue for his organization is overfishing and the depletion of gamefish on a global scale. The 35,000 member IGFA is spread thinner than a lot of organizations, he notes, but makes up for that with over 350 formally appointed representatives in 120 countries. These are influential players who not only have access to important decision-makers in their own countries, but also have influence beyond their national borders, he says.

"As keeper of the rules, though, we have to be careful about the issues we engage in and the positions that we take," he notes.

It's the organization's actions, Kramer says, what it's actually doing on the management and conservation fronts, that show IGFA is a lot more that just another recreational angling advocacy organization. And that's good news for fishing's tomorrowland. For more information,

 
 

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