By Jerome Tharaud
State fisheries biologist Kent Gilge was excited on Wednesday, the night before the big fishing trip.
"We've got a pole for every kid. We just fixed all the poles and reels and put line on them and got them all set."
Gilge was not the only one who was excited, say the parents and teachers of the six classes of Havre third-graders who went ice fishing on Beaver Creek Lake Thursday and today.
"Boy, they want to go fishing," Gilge said. "When they're in second grade, they know this is something they get to do."
The annual ice fishing trip is run with help from Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs, a federal fishing education program run by the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks that has been taking Montana students fishing for the past seven years.
"It's really to just instill what we hope will be a lifelong love of fishing," said Gilge. "The schools and principals and everyone else have just really helped," he added.
By 8 a.m. Thursday, Fish and Wildlife employees were drilling about 60 holes through ice a foot thick with motorized augers, and setting up heaters and three portable warming huts on the ice.
The first two classes arrived about 9. In the afternoon, another class arrived, and cries of "A fish!" and "Come over here!" and "Ew!" sprang up across the ice as some young anglers ran from hole to hole to see the latest catch, and the more patient ones remained crouched in front of their poles peering down into the frigid water.
Three more classes were scheduled to fish today.
"I think it's cool," third-grader Caylan Jupp said on the first ice fishing trip of his life. Jupp was not the only first-time ice fisherman in his family on Thursday afternoon. He was accompanied by his father, one of several parent volunteers at the lake. "It's a neat experience," Eugene Jupp said. "It teaches the kids to find something else to do other than getting into trouble," he said, adding that Caylan was "really excited to come out today."
The trip is more than just fun, said FWP angler education coordinator Dave Hagengruber, who manages the fishing classes around the state.
The program began in 1996 with three classes: one each in Havre, Sheridan, and Kalispell. This year 150 Montana classes will take to the ice - most of them fifth-graders. Havre has sent third- graders for the last six years, Gilge said, because of the efforts of a third-grade teacher who loves fishing and wanted her students to experience the program.
Between donated and discounted fishing supplies and money from hunting and fishing licenses, the program costs very little each year and uses no Montana tax dollars. Hagengruber estimates the team spent about $50 this year on bait, as well as food for about a dozen volunteers consisting of parents and employees of FWP and the federal Bureau of Land Management. "The cost is really minimal," he said.
Hagengruber said that despite living in a state with one of the highest fishing-participation rates in the country, many of the students had never fished before.
Before the students get out on the ice, they receive lessons on fish identification, fishing safety, gear and technique, and also about the way to fish without damaging fish populations. "The real learning takes place in the classroom," he said. "Teachers use (the trip) as a reward."
Third-grade Lincoln McKenley teacher Dennie Barnekoff says her students spent a lot of time preparing for the trip, researching on computers and in books. In two weeks the students will dissect some of the fish they caught, while the rest will be sent to other science classes in the state.
"It's an ecology, nature and science lesson all wrapped in one," she said, adding that she also gets a writing lesson out of the trip by having her students write journal entries about their trip.
"It's hands-on science," Barnekoff said as she watched two of her students examine a fish they had just caught. "I mean you can't teach this in the classroom."
The program also helps FWP manage the number of yellow perch in the lake.
"The goal is to get a lot of these perch out of here," Hagengruber said. "If you get too many fish, there's not enough food to support them all. You just get a lot of small perch."
On Thursday, classes caught a total of 115 yellow perch.
But the more important result of the program is its effect on the kids, Hagengruber said.
By the end of the program, "they've got a connection to this resource," he said. Many high school students he meets still talk about the fishing trip they took in elementary school. "I think they'll remember it when they're adults too," he said.
He's right, if third-grader Dave Bell is any indication. He looks up at his teacher and asks, "Can we do this more often?"