It was hard not to notice the 8-year-old boy across the street who stormed in and out of his own house. The boy, a neighbor of William Dunn in Lakeland, Fla., did it often enough that Dunn wanted to see if he could help.
Dunn had grown up fishing with his dad and had helped him for a time with his lobster business in the Florida Keys.
“Fishing always brought me peace and it taught me how to be patient,” he said. “When you’re on the water, you can forget about your problems and just appreciate the moment.”
Dunn, who has three children of his own, approached the boy’s mother and asked for permission to take him fishing.
One Saturday afternoon on the water soon led to another, and pretty soon he was teaching the boys’ friends and other kids in the neighborhood how to rig a line, hold a fishing pole and reel in a big catch. That was 15 years ago.
Since then, he’s taken groups of kids out almost every weekend to fish. Most of them didn’t have father figures in their lives, and had never fished before.
Some of them were foster kids who had shuffled for years from one home to the next, he said.
“They’d been through a lot and they’d seen a lot, and their lives were difficult,” Dunn said. “But when they were fishing, all of that faded away.”
“Out on the boat, they’d be laughing and smiling and making new friends,” he said. “I knew I was on to something.”
In the beginning, Dunn spent a good chunk of his paycheck from his job selling tires to help fund the weekend fishing expeditions on charter boats, he said.
In the past 3½ years, he and a small group of volunteers have introduced more than 2,500 kids — most without fathers around — to the experience of spending peaceful time on the water, and the exhilaration of nabbing a fish.
This Father’s Day weekend, Dunn said he’ll help string fishing poles for two young sisters who lost their parents last Christmas Eve.
“I’ve taken them out several times on a pontoon with their grandparents, and I’ve noticed they’ve become more calm and happy with each trip,” he said. “A big part of that transformation is because of fishing.”
Dunn, who is known as “Big Will” to the kids on his charter boats, said he always felt lucky to have a dad to take him fishing when he was growing up in Miami.
“I’m the youngest of six and I always had a great relationship with my dad,” he said. “He lives in Tennessee now, but I still carry the lessons he taught me. He told me that fishing isn’t about what you catch — it’s about the memories you make.”
“That’s what I hope to pass along to every kid I introduce to fishing,” Dunn said.
Through public and private donations to his nonprofit, he said he’s able to go deep-sea fishing with up to 20 kids at a time, or take smaller groups on Saturday lake outings on a charter boat.
“We only keep the fish we need and toss the rest back,” he said. “And at the end of the day, I’ll help to fry up the catch and feed the kids fish tacos for dinner.”
His dedication to the young anglers caught the attention of others in the community.
“Will is authentic and meets people where they are,” said Tom Pichette, a former youth pastor who lives in Bartow, Fla., and has accompanied Dunn on numerous fishing trips as a volunteer.
“Kids can sense that he’s genuine,” said Pichette, 59. “They’ve been dealt some hard cards and they climb aboard with some tough stories. But Will always accepts them as they are.”
Terra Pryor of Lakeland, Fla., said all three of her children have struggled emotionally since their dad, Richard Pryor, died in a car accident in January 2020.
“I was especially worried about my son, Jayden, who was 10 then,” said Pryor, 32. “He was really close to his dad and felt he needed to take over the man of the house role immediately. ”
“He was trying to be strong for everyone and didn’t show his emotion,” she said. “I was wondering what to do to help him, and then I learned about Take a Kid Fishing.”
Jayden, now 12, has become a devoted fisherman thanks to regular outings with Dunn, he said.
“Will has helped me to grow by taking me fishing,” he said, noting that he once caught a shark that Dunn helped him to cut loose.
“I hope he knows I mean it when I say, ‘Thank you,’ ” Jayden said.
Terra Pryor said that her son’s fishing expeditions allow him to continue a beloved pastime from his early years with his dad.
“He’s loved fishing since he was little and we’d take him to a pond and put a hot dog on the line,” she said. “Now he goes out once or twice a month with Will and it’s wonderful to see that love for fishing continue.”
Jayden and other kids in the program all receive their own fishing poles and tackle boxes, and it isn’t uncommon for them to haul in a big fish like Jayden’s shark, Pryor said.
“But more than that, it’s the relationships they’re building and the healing that is happening when they’re out on the water,” she said.
“When Jayden was going through a rough patch earlier this year, I let Will know that his grades were suffering and he had a little talk with him,” Pryor said.
Jayden came home and told her that Big Will had given him a sense of purpose, she said, adding that his grades improved.
Another regular angler, Bella Smith, said that Dunn emphasized self-respect and to keep trying no matter how many times she might fail.
“I’m able to forget about the past when I’m fishing and concentrate on something fun and positive,” said Smith, 20, who is in an extended foster care program while she takes automotive classes at a technical college in Bartow.
“Fishing is learning for life,” she said. “I’ve learned that I deserve a better life than what I had. Whenever I feel down about something, I know it’s time to go fishing.”
Dunn said he feels honored to help her and the other young people on his fishing outings to find a way to heal and move forward with confidence.
“There’s nothing like feeling that first tug on the line and seeing a kid light up with a smile,” he said. “I feel lucky to witness that every weekend.”