Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

The past few months have not been kind.

There have been deaths in the family, deaths of friends and serious illnesses to deal with. Occasionally, the stresses of life will take their toll.

I was experiencing one of those low periods Saturday afternoon when I arrived at John A. Logan College to cover the Crab Orchard Refuge High School Bass Classic fishing tournament. The event is part of the Southern Illinois Celebration of National Hunting and Fishing Days.

My mood lifted immediately as I melted into the crowd.

The first stop was the kids' fishing area. Despite unseasonably warm temperatures, the small pond on John A. Logan’s campus was surrounded by children. The buzz coming from the pond told me that fish were biting —a fact verified by Illinois Department of Natural Resources staff handing out rods and reels.

Then, making my way toward the vendor tents, I noticed an animated young man walking side-by-side with a member of the Sesser-Valier Outdoorsman Club — the club has been volunteering its services to NHFD for a couple decades.

The source of the excitement was a pair of nice-sized channel cats being carried by the young lady from Sesser-Valier High School. When they reached the bridge spanning the south end of the lake, the Sesser-Valier volunteer knelt with the young man and showed him how to hold the catfish without getting finned.

The young men flipped the first fish into the lake, smiling broadly as it swam away. He seemed equally pleased with himself when the second fish was returned to the water.

That scene was uplifting on so many levels.

It was on to the vendor tents.

The stifling heat was magnified in the tents. Despite, the hot weather, good crowds milled about, many of them youngsters. They eyed the merchandise eagerly, most likely formulating arguments as to why the item of their dreams was a dire necessity.

The excitement among the youngsters was palpable, not to mention contagious.

Finally, the heat forced me inside the college. The artificially-cooled air provided instant relief, even before the door closed behind me.

While wondering among the displays, I came across a young lady holding the leash of a beautiful Labrador retriever. The dog had the purest, sweetest brown eyes I’d ever seen.

The well-behaved Lab looked at me expectantly. I looked at the young lady, then motioned toward the dog. She nodded, indicating it was fine to pet him.

As I crouched down, the dog sensed incoming affection. He moved slowly toward my outstretched hand. The hand was met by a soft, somewhat tentative lick. I felt a smile form on my face as the dog’s tail began wagging happily.

Then, confident I had made a new friend, I headed toward my car.

As the car door closed behind me it dawned on me that my frame of mind had improved markedly. Volunteers, little kids, fish and dogs will do that to a person.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @Les Winkeler.

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