Making a difference — one fish at a time

Volunteer Jim Kujala makes a big impact while cleaning thousands of fish per year

Jim Kujala and his grandson Chris Helgeson collected and cleaned 81 pounds of fish to donate to the North County Food Pantry at WDFW’s National Hunting and Fishing Day this fall.

Jim Kujala says he has time on his hands (and possibly some fish slime), when asked why he devotes a significant amount of time volunteering for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

“Jim always shows up when we call,” said WDFW District 2 Fish Biologist Randy Osborne. “The youth fishing events in this area have become very popular, and that success couldn’t be accomplished without the many hard-working volunteers that give us a hand. Jim is one of the hardest working and dependable volunteers I have ever worked with, not to mention being an all-around nice guy and a pleasure to be around!”

Fishing at Diamond Lake was one of the many activities available to children who attended National Hunting and Fishing Day this fall at Cowles Scout Reservation north of Spokane. As with most eastern Washington events hosted by WDFW that feature youth fishing, Kujala was there. Those who caught trout and didn’t want to take them home to eat turned them over to be cleaned by Jim and his grandson Chris Helgeson. The two spent six hours that day cleaning fish. If you’ve ever cleaned even a few fish with excited children trying to poke at them and bouncing around, you understand the dedication this involves.

“These types of events require volunteers to be on their feet for hours on end. Jim and his assistants perform like machines at these events; I simply don’t know how they do it,” said Osborne. “While providing this type of opportunity to area children (and food banks) can wear you out by the end of the day, it’s extremely satisfying. It’s a labor of love and dedication.”

That labor of love provided a lot of meals for people who needed it. Six hours of cleaning fish yielded 81 pounds of fresh food! Jim took the time to personally deliver the fish to the North County Food Pantry in Elk, one of the communities hit hard by wildfire this fall.

“He was so very helpful. After delivering all those fish he stayed and helped us bag them and get them into the freezer,” said Sandra Harvey, Director of the North County Food Pantry. “Our customers love fish.”

Harvey said fresh fish makes for a nice break from the limited availability of proteins at the pantry.

“No matter how much we get, it is gone the same day it is offered. We had to divide the catch so that Wednesday customers get some also,” she said.

Kujula has done a lot of fish cleaning and delivering over the years. He first started volunteering with WDFW and area fishing clubs in WDFW’s Region 1 around 1996 and eventually worked himself into an actual job.

“After I had volunteered for ten years I got hired,” he said. “I spent almost 15 years as a technician working on deer studies starting in 2003.”

Jim Kujala (left) with friend and fellow WDFW volunteer Dave Ross

Over the years, Kujula has also recruited other volunteers who have been a huge help to WDFW staff and operations. His friend Dave Ross, another long-time WDFW volunteer, was lured into the volunteer lifestyle through carcasses.

“We started out that he was helping me on the roadkill program and then it just kind of morphed into more,” Kujala said of Ross. “He was retired and had a lot of time and he enjoyed the work and getting out and the exercise.”

Carcasses were also the gateway that brought Kujala’s grandson Chris Helgeson to the Department.

“He’s been helping since he was about six years old. It started with him going out on roadkill recovery with me,” Kujala said.

In addition to fishing events, Kujula and Helgeson still help with carcasses today. During the deer hunting seasons they work at WDFW hunter check stations taking samples from harvested deer to test for chronic wasting disease.

Kujala (center) takes a sample from a harvested deer at a hunter check station.

Kujala mostly hunts elk himself, because he says he loves the challenge. What he loves even more though is teaching others to hunt or fish, particularly children. Working with various area outdoor and fishing clubs over the years, he has taken many disabled children out in boats to fish. At one point, he was involved in an effort to teach high school and older students to fish. Somehow the word got out with Japanese students at Gonzaga University and Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute (a branch campus of Mukogawa Women’s University in Nishinomiya, Japan; the Japanese sister city of Spokane) that Kujala was teaching fishing. He became very popular with the exchange students.

“The second year I did it, it was mostly girls from Mukogawa. We went out on Fourth of July Lake and after it was over they all got together and all had their cameras, and we took their pictures. While I was headed home, doggone, my phone was ringing! By the time I got home to check my phone I had a bunch of calls from Japan. It was a bunch of students who had seen the pictures and wanted to schedule so they could go out the next year!”

It’s not all about fun for Kujala. It’s important to him that he leaves the kids he encounters with new knowledge.

Kujula’s setup at the annual Spokane Kid’s Fishing Event includes his trusty truck and sign.

“For example, with the fishing kids (the annual Spokane Kid’s Fishing Event that takes place at Clear Lake) I question the kids if they want to watch what I’m doing (when cleaning fish) and most of them do.”

If the kids don’t appear to be squeamish about him cleaning the fish (which most don’t, he says) he does some additional dissection to demonstrate fish anatomy and biology, which most seem to enjoy. Some of the children even remember him from past years.

“One girl was really proud to have come back to the fishing kids (event) six years in a row,” he said. “So you asked why I do it? That’s why… that kind of thing is my reward.”

If you are interested in volunteering with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, please visit the Department’s Volunteer opportunities webpage.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.