Judging from the fishing rod’s bend and the water being thrashed about, Cole Christenson needn’t have cast another line all day.

The 14-year-old Bethesda resident was participating in a Fish and Explore summer program July 13 when he hooked a grass carp by the tail at a private lake in eastern Loudoun County.

With the help of program employee Steven Johnson, Christenson reeled in the 35- to 40-pound bottom-feeding fish and posed for pictures with the squirming, white-and-gray-scaled behemoth before releasing it back to the smooth waters.

“It was heavy,” said Christenson, who himself weighs only 100 pounds. “I was a little scared it was going to squirm, because I might have dropped it. But I’m glad I held it.”

Christenson estimated it took him 10 minutes to land the 3.5-foot-long carp. But program head John Lipetz gave him some surprising news: The heart-pumping ordeal had lasted 25 minutes.

Lipetz started Fish and Explore in April 2010 to let area youths learn new skills and familiarize themselves with the natural world.

“I find fishing is a good gateway into nature,” he said. “It builds a comfort level. If you do these things when you’re young, when you get older you’re a lot more comfortable with those kind of experiences.”

The camps, which run for one week and are limited to 12 participants, also try to teach youths respect and land stewardship, especially when on private property, Lipetz said.

“You kind of treat it like it’s your own, but maybe a little bit better,” he said. “The idea is to leave the place as good, or better than, the way you found it.”

Participants usually return the all the fishes they reel in back to the water; on trips to the Chesapeake Bay, however, they can take home some of their catches.

Program leaders show the children where to cast their lines, which lures to select and how to identify fishes, snakes and other animals they likely will encounter. The company also offers a merit-badge program for Scouts that teaches fish-cleaning skills, Lipetz said.

Younger participants receive more guidance, while older ones are given more leeway to do things themselves.

“We really believe if you enable them to do something, they’ll retain that longer,” he said. “At the end of the week, the idea is that they should be able to go out and fish self-sufficiently.”

Seven children, ages 10 to 14, accompanied Lipetz and Johnson to the lake July 13, including Lipetz’s son, Quinn, and daughter, Rachel. Several of the youths had participated in the camps before.

Camp officials emphasize basic safety rules and use only single hooks instead of the treble variety.

“By limiting the number of hooks and the number of kids, you kind of reduce your opportunity for incident,” Lipetz said.

The youths also learn how to control a caught fish by placing a thumb in its mouth, but this maneuver is discouraged for species with sizable teeth, Lipetz said.

The company now offers five programs, including native-animal and hiking-and-photography camps, and will introduce backpacking excursions next summer, he said.

“Our big thing is animals, water, dirt and getting kids outside,” Lipetz said.

Fish and Explore has a contract with Fairfax County and offers its services through venues such as the McLean Community Center. Camp employees meet children at central locations, such as Spring Hill RECenter in McLean, before taking them out on field trips to variety of water environments, such the Shenandoah River, Chesapeake Bay and various private lakes. Camps run from Mondays through Fridays and last eight hours per day.

Christenson, who was participating in the camp for the third straight summer, said he became enthused during the first year after nabbing an 8-pound largemouth bass.

“I like to fish, especially when you get a big one,” he said. “You feel really accomplished when you bring it in.”

Rachel Lipetz, 10, caught a largemouth bass at the Loudoun County lake, but still relishes landing a 39-inch rockfish during a Chesapeake Bay outing.

Fellow camp participant Jack Goggin, 13, of Falls Church also proudly held up the largemouth bass he caught. Goggin, who is spending his third summer with the program, said John Lipetz good-naturedly razzes him.

“He’s always fun. He’s sarcastic with me and makes a bunch of jokes,” Goggin said.

Another benefit is Goggin occasionally gets taste fishes he’s brought in.

“It feels nice eating the fish you’ve caught,” he said. “It’s always fresh.”

Abby Greene, 12, of Falls Church also is enthusiastic about her camp experience.

“I love to fish and catch critters,” she said.

The camps run through August. For more information, call (703) 609-8083 or visit www.fishandexplore.com.

(See more on this story in the video below.)

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