HAWLEY — With a forecast of a bright Pocono tourist season, regional promoters expressed their outlook at a press conference May 22, with Lake Wallenpaupack in the background.

Emphasis was placed on water safety, with highlights for 2014 including a local fishing derby and free loans of fishing poles to catch fish tagged for prizes worth up to $5,000.

Carl Wilgus, Executive Director of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau (PMVB), accentuated many positive statistics pointing to the four-county Pocono area as a prime destination for tourists.

Ready to launch the official start of the season as the Memorial Day Weekend was about to begin, he noted that the Triple A Motor Club expected the biggest travel period in 10 years.

Improving signs in the national economy have stimulated confidence in travel, Wilgus said. With only a tank full of gas, visitors from 120 miles around find the Pocono area a convenient getaway.

He noted that as many as 25 million visitors visit here annually, compared to a population of less than 300,000.

Approximately 34,000 people work in the tourism and hospitality industry in the Poconos, or 34.9% of the workforce. They are paid $1.209 billion a year, 47.9% of the total labor income in the Poconos.

Pocono tourists, he pointed out are twice as likely to pursue outdoor recreation than the national average; twice as likely to stay at a resort and five times more likely to attend a special event or activity. The Poconos, furthermore, are bursting with events and activities, of a wide range of interests.

Borrow rod & reel

Speaking on the deck of the PMVB's Lake Wallenpaupack Visitors Center, Harold Luther of Cabela's a major recreational outfitter based in Hamburg, PA, discussed the rod and reel loaner program available at the Visitors Center. Cabela's is proving 12 poles for adults and 12 for youth, which may be borrowed to go fishing here.

A state fishing license is required (except on "Fish for Free" days). The goal is to interest more people to try their hand at fishing.

PMVB offered rods before for loan, but were not as good a quality as Cabela's, Wilgus noted.

Cast for Cash

This ties in well with the "Cast for Cash" fishing derby which is being hosted exclusively at Lake Wallenpaupack. A local organization pledged to oversee and protect the lake's water quality, the Lake Wallenpaupack Watershed Management District (LWWMD) launched the new event."Cast for Cash"  is based on the popular fishing derbies hosted by Cabela's in the last couple years at numerous lakes including Wallenpaupack.

Keith Williams, director of the Visitors Center and a member of the LWWMD board of directors, had proposed the idea, which met with full favor by fellow directors.

With cooperation from the PA Fish & Boat Commission, 49 fishes, representing nine species, were tagged and released in Lake Wallenpaupack. Each of these fish will bring a prize valued at a minimum of $100 up to the grand prize of $5,000 in cash.

Numerous local businesses have provides prizes, valued together at approximately $10,000. Restaurant gifts cards to weekend get-aways are included.

All participants must be age 18 or over. They must pre-register on the District's web site, wallenpaupackwatershed.org.

The contest runs from May 23 through September 30, 2014. There is no purchase or entry fee required. Florida residents are not permitted to enter. All current fishing regulations apply.

Fishing licenses

Bob Plumb, PA Fish & Boat Commission, noted that Pennsylvania has two free fishing days in 2014, May 26 and July 4, where no license is required. On other days, everyone age 16 or over must have a valid PA fishing license to fish in Pennsylvania.

There are tourist licenses available for visitors from out of state, for one, three or seven day periods, if they don't want to buy a license for the whole season.

Safety in the water

Plumb stressed the need and value for safety while in the water.

As always, the PA Fish & Boat Commission is urging the wearing of life jackets, which he stressed, do save lives. Children age 12 and under are required by law to wear one while on the water.

The Commission had a new incentive for kids. If a boat is stopped by the Commission and children on board are found to be properly wearing a life jacket, they will be rewarded with a t-shirt saying, "I got caught wearing a life jacket."

There's no t-shirt, however, if you are caught without one, he added.

For more details online: "Cast for Cash": www.wallenpaupackwatershed.org Pocono tourism: www.800poconos.comFishing licenses: www.fish.state.pa.us/license