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The annual Kids Invitational Fishing Classic was Thursday morning at Oxford Lake with many area schools participating. (Photo by Trent Penny)

OXFORD — Hundreds of people lined the shores of Oxford Lake Thursday morning for the Kids Invitational Fishing Classic — a fishing tournament that seems to be undergoing a growth spurt.

“We started in a pool, and now we’re taking up half of Oxford Lake,” said Pati Tiller, outreach coordinator for the Arc of Calhoun and Cleburne Counties, one of the organizers of the event.

Once known as the Special Kids Fishing Classic, the tournament pits kids with intellectual disabilities, all from local schools, against each other in a contest to see who can catch the biggest fish, and the largest number of fish.

Kids typically get a morning out of school for the tournament. Organizers say they don’t have a specific educational goal in mind — just a love of fishing and a desire to let kids compete in a sport.

“There are enough real barriers for them out there in the world,” Tiller said. “They don’t need imaginary barriers. Somebody might tell them, ‘you can’t fish,’ but their bodies are telling them ‘I can do this.’”

Two-hundred forty seven kids did exactly that Thursday morning — the biggest crowd the event has drawn in years, according to Tiller. With hundreds of grown-ups in attendance as well, the crowd stretched along the shore past the penned-in parts of the lake, stocked earlier this week with 1,000 pounds of catfish.

Javen English, 7, of Oxford Elementary caught a 1.1-pound catfish early in the competition. His mom, Amy Stevens, and teacher Erin Borchard stood close by as he watched volunteers weigh it, then throw it back. He was sad to see it go.

“Bye, fish,” he said, looking up to Borchard. “It’s mine.”

Borchard said the event teaches skills that are harder to convey in the classroom.

“For one thing, they’re practicing social skills and conversation,” she said.

This year’s event was more social than previous years. Tiller said the typical crowd is just more than 200, though participation of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind boosted this year’s numbers. AIDB is the first Talladega County school to participate, she said.

The event’s champion fish was a little heavier than 2 pounds, Tiller said. That’s not small, in contest terms; organizers said most of the fish stocked for the event are smaller than 3 pounds. The event stocks the entire lake with new catfish, some of which may wind up on a hook the next year. Tiller said kids have caught fish as big as 5 pounds in past years.

Local fishing fanatics are usually well aware of the event, ready to cast their lines into the lake as soon as the contest is over, according to Tiller. She praised the conservation agents who kept watch on the lake before the tournament began.

“They’ve got to stand guard for two days to make sure the fish are still there,” she said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.