Column: Cast Hope Regional Director Conway Bowman Uses Fishing to Build Futures

There is a moment when a child’s eyes sparkle and widen as a taut fishing line begins to sing as it shoots off the spool.

That’s why Conway Bowman agreed to become the regional director of Cast Hope, a nonprofit program that matches underserved and marginalized kids and mentors with fishing guides.

At first glance, it’s a way to get kids away from cell phones and video games while opening up a whole different world from the one that too often leads to stress and struggle. Many of the children come from single parent families, if one is in their lives at all, and they face challenges in some way, emotionally, financially, or otherwise.

The program is much more, however.

“Fishing is the key that opens the door to more opportunities for these kids,” said Bowman, 55, an Encinitas fishing guide. “Most of these kids have never been beyond a five-block radius of their neighborhood. You are exposing them to something positive, they are achieving goals, they are experiencing the great outdoors.

“When they start fishing, you see the confidence increase. You’re connecting that endpoint.”

That is what makes August 5th so important. Fundraising for the program, which currently serves 30 children in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, has taken a hit in its three years of existence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bowman, the manager of the Lake Hodges reservoir, said the hopes are to expand to school districts in Fallbrook and, in a perfect world, San Diego.

The group is celebrating a Hawaiian casino night at The Dana in Mission Bay. Colorful t-shirts, Vegas-style games, music, food and drinks are the garnishes on the essential main course, keeping the connection with the kids.

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The program, free to those involved, relies on the guides’ ability to pay to ensure life lessons continue to flow.

“A lot of these kids need glitter in their lives, to some degree,” Bowman said. “When they catch that first fish, they turn to you with the biggest smile on their face. You know that in that moment, you changed his life for the better in some way.

“That motivates the kid and the mentor to come back again and again to find that special moment.”

Bowman told the story of a girl, about 10 years old, who faces challenges on a daily basis. She came to a program clinic to teach basic casting.

Soon, she was in a boat.

“He had a spinning rod in the bow of the boat with his mom,” Bowman said of a guided trip to Mission Bay. “First cast, gets hit and misses the fish. She coils up and throws it back in the same spot and catches a 22-inch halibut. That day, she ended up being the hottest stick on the boat, a girl who picked up a rod once in her life.

“On the way, she says, ‘You know what, Mr. Bowman? I would like to be a fishing guide one day. She said, ‘Are the girls fishing guides?’ I said, ‘Yes, they sure are.’ She has been on the show ever since.”

A boy enrolled in the foundation program in Chico, launched by San Diegan Ryan Johnston, became a fishing guide on the Sacramento River. Another is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in fisheries biology at university.

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Success stories begin to appear like dandelions.

“Instead of filling a half-day boat with a bunch of kids for a one-time deal, the kid and the mentor can grow with the guide they’re working with,” Bowman said. “When the day is over, the boy cannot go fishing.

“We are teaching them to tie a knot, to make a cast with a fly rod. You’re developing those skills.”

It’s a common sense approach to something more lasting, teaching children to achieve while making excuses for why the most important things in life aren’t possible.

Seeds are planted. Cast Hope offers the water.

“What I found with a lot of these kids is that they have never really set a goal for themselves,” Bowman said. They are definitely lost. Many children have two pillars in their life, their mom and dad, who keep them moving. If they go a bit off the rails, they can bounce off either parent.

“The program gives the child and the mentor a bigger, longer-term connection.”

They take the children to the wetlands, to show them the starting point of the drinking water that enters the reservoirs, travels through the filtration plants and reaches the taps. They visit the tide pools. They walk by lakes and beaches on garbage collection days.

The big picture fuels bigger goals.

“They’re giving back, rather than just getting free stuff,” Bowman said.

The moment of the light bulb still excites.

“A lot of these kids don’t have addresses,” he said. “A fishing rod can do amazing things.”

You can find a Hawaiian shirt in the closet, right?

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Supporting cast Esperanza

The nonprofit Cast Hope program, which connects underserved kids and mentors with fishing guides, is hosting a Hawaiian Casino Night to raise funds. Casino games, food, two drink tickets and a band are included.

To register for the event, click on the “Events” tab in… CastHope.org.