Eli Griffiths leaned back, pulled on his fishing rod and smiled as he proudly reeled in his fourth fish Friday morning at the Neosho National Fish Hatchery.

“That’s the biggest one yet!” said hatchery manager Dave Hendrix as he helped the young angler unhook the rainbow trout.

Griffiths was one of approximately 500 children between the ages of 7 and 12 who took part in the hatchery’s annual Kids Fishing Derby on Friday.

This year, the derby was split into two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Hendrix said the limit for each session was 250 kids, and registration for both had filled up.

“It’s wonderful,” Hendrix said. “The weather is perfect. Everybody’s caught some fish, 90 percent of them caught all four, which is the limit. It’s just been like clockwork.”

Hendrix said the decision to split the annual derby into two sessions was due to the growing participation each year.

Previously, the derby had consisted of fishing clinics in the morning before the fishing began, though Hendrix said with the large turnout it was difficult to keep the kids focused on learning.

“It had gotten so big now, and with the clinic, the kids were losing interest,” Hendrix said. “A lot of kids lose interest because they’re just so excited about the fishing. The friends group actually recommended that we just try having two fishing sessions, one in the morning, one in the afternoon and see how it goes. It’s been perfect.”

He said the participants still get some fishing safety tips and are given safety glasses to wear while they fish.

Hendrix said offering the fishing derby each year gives the hatchery a chance to educate the young fisherman, as well as give back to the Neosho community.

“These kids are our future anglers and the best thing to do is to expose them to the fun of fishing,” Hendrix said. “To teach them good fishing ethics and the right way to do it. It’s just something that families can do together that’s safe for the most part, and we always touch on safety too.”

Hendrix said the Friends of the Fish Hatchery group made the fishing derby possible. The group provided the fishing poles and bait for the young fishermen. Volunteers also worked to assist the children as they fished, and provided a cleaning station to prepare the fish to be taken home.

“Our friends group has been so instrumental in allowing us to do this stuff, because we couldn’t do it alone, that’s for sure,” Hendrix said.

Among the attendees at Friday morning’s session were David and Stormy Darch and their four nephews, Logan, Daniel, Tyler and Jacob.

Stormy Darch said the group had caught a total of 16 fish by the end of the morning session.

“They’ve caught their limit really fast,” Darch said. “I think this is great. It gets people together, it’s fun watching the kids have fun doing it, they catch them so quickly, It’s fun to see their excitement.”

Hendrix said the pond was ready to go Friday morning, and is kept stocked year-round with rainbow trout.

The hatchery will host their next fishing derby, for senior citizens 65 and older and for the physically disabled, from 9 a.m. until noon on Friday, June 14.