Making young fishing FANATICS

Why FWP wants to get kids hooked on fishing. By Dave Hagengruber

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
May–June 2002

It’s late May, and the students in Mike Sartori’s seventh- and eighth-grade class at Trego School fidget in their seats. Summer vacation is just around the corner, and the kids are literally sweating out the last few days of school in the hot classroom. A few years ago, many of these youngsters would have been dying to pick up a fishing rod about now. But Sartori’s students have already been fishing and studying fish all year. In fact, their angling activity actually began when they entered the classroom last fall, not when they will leave it this spring. Fish and fishing are integral parts of the entire school year, topics discussed in class almost every day.

The same is true in other classrooms across Montana. Throughout the state, a growing number of students are learning about fish, fishing, and aquatic resources through the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Hooked on Fishing Program. During the recent school year, more than 100 classrooms and 2,500 students, mostly in the upper elementary grades, took part in the interactive fishing education program.

Hooked on Fishing got its start in Montana in 1996, when FWP was looking for new ways to encourage families to spend more time together outdoors. That year, Montana adopted a national program called Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs. The Montana version has no formal anti-drug references, but it does offer fishing as a positive alternative to drug use and other activities that could get kids in trouble. Funding comes from a federal excise tax paid by anglers and boaters on fishing gear, boats, and motor fuel.

Why does Montana, a state with one of the highest fishing participation rates among residents, need a program to teach youngsters about fish and fishing? Because each year, fewer kids have opportunities to go fishing and learn about the natural world on their own. Increasingly, kids grow up in towns and cities without access to streams and ponds available to earlier generations. What’s more, kids today have many more recreational options, such as soccer and video games. As a result, fewer kids are exposed to fishing.

That’s a shame, say Hooked on Fishing supporters, because fishing is an enjoyable lifelong activity that every Montanan should have the chance to experience. And because active participation in the outdoors creates more advocates for conserving the outdoors, that potential loss of anglers could mean fewer Montanans who care about conserving fish habitat and water quality in the future.

“ These students are the future voters and sportsmen and sportswomen of Montana,” says Sartori, the middle school educator. “This program teaches kids responsible stewardship of our resources. There is so much more to it than just hooking up your rod and going out to have a good time.”

Sampling pH
Located in Lincoln County north of Whitefish, Trego is an ideal place for Sartori’s seventh- and eighth-graders to learn about fish and fishing. Within a short drive of the school are more than fifteen lakes and four rivers, any of which the class may visit several times each month. And not just to fish. The students also sample for water quality on local rivers and stream and monitor water temperature, oxygen levels, pH, and dissolved solids. After adopting a short stretch of a nearby creek, they worked with staff members of FWP and the U.S. Forest Service to stabilize the stream bank and improve spawning habitat. Each winter, Sartori’s class leads a schoolwide ice fishing trip, in which all of the school’s 65 students spend a day learning about—and taking part in—the outdoors.

Though Sartori’s students have discovered that they won’t catch fish on every outing, there have been days when the fish wouldn’t stay off their hooks. For example, last year while ice fishing with FWP instructor Roy Hassinger, the class caught more than 1,200 yellow perch in one afternoon. Most of the fish were released, but some were cooked and eaten on the frozen lake. Others were saved for classroom study on anatomy and dissection later in the spring. On this and other fishing trips, the students kept careful records of the numbers and size of the fish they caught, the weather and water conditions, and the amount of time they spent fishing.

The outdoors action is fun, but most Hooked on Fishing activities actually take place indoors, in classrooms. Each of the 100-plus participating Montana teachers uses the program a bit differently, but most of its components are the same for all classes. The program provides fishing equipment for every student and training and curriculum for the teachers, as well as in-class assistance by FWP staff and instructors.

In the classrooms, fish and aquatic resources become a theme for the school year. The connections to science studies are obvious, but Sartori and many other teachers find ways for fish and aquatic resources to show up in almost every subject area.

“ We do lots of math,” says Sartori, “especially with our water monitoring and river flow calculations. And students write about all of these activities in their journals. We’ve even had fish show up in our art projects.”

That sounds fun, but does the program benefit students academically? For Jan Thon, recently retired third-grade teacher and Hooked on Fishing instructor in Kalispell, the answer is clear. “When I was teaching, this was one of the very best programs I had ever been involved with,” says Thon, who taught for 31 years before retiring in 2001. “I was able to reach students I had never been able to get close to, just by sitting together and fishing on the bank.”

Like Sartori, Thon worked fishing into every subject matter. “Our class made graphs of weights and lengths of all the fish we caught, and we even wrote fishing math story problems,” she says. “That was one of the only ways I could get my students to actually enjoy math class.

The program had added benefits beyond writing and arithmetic. “My favorite thing about fishing,” says Thon, “is that it’s a non-competitive sport. Every student in my class was successful. And without them realizing it, fishing helped them learn lifelong skills—things that all of us who fish just take for granted. Fishing teaches concentration. It teaches patience. Those are critical skills that many kids today don’t have that fishing helps them develop.”

Unlike Thon, an experienced angler, most teachers using Hooked on Fishing lack fishing skills. Volunteers and FWP staff provide much of the technical expertise for the classrooms while teachers handle the daily lessons. John Fraley, FWP information officer in Kalispell, is responsible for 75 Hooked on Fishing classes in the state’s northwest region and coordinates several volunteer instructors who assist in the classrooms.

“ Without the help of our instructors, we wouldn’t have a successful program,” says Fraley. “Each one is assigned to work with a teacher at the beginning of the year, and they and the students really get to know each other well by the year’s end.”

Volunteer instructors teach many of the technical lessons, such as insect and fish identification, fish dissection, and lure making. “Our instructors have the skills,” says Fraley, “but we rely on the teachers for their experience with the kids and knowing how to incorporate the subject into their classes.”

It’s an ideal partnership between FWP and the schools, says Fraley: “Best of all, the kids are the ones who benefit.”

And far more kids are benefiting than what FWP had been able to reach previously. Before Hooked on Fishing began, Fraley ran only one angler education class each year, with the help of volunteers and agency biologists and wardens. “A good-sized class for us was about 40 kids,” says Fraley, “and we put a lot of time and effort into that one class.” Now Fraley works directly with dozens of teachers who each teaches 20 or 25 kids every year.

“ We are reaching over 1,800 kids each year in this region alone,” Fraley says.

Moreover, the amount of education each student receives is far greater than what FWP was able to provide previously. Teachers in the program report spending an average of more than 40 hours of classroom time each year on the topic of fishing and aquatic resources.

“ We never had that kind of impact on our own,” says Fraley. “Forty hours is a tremendous amount of classroom time.”

Dads in the classroom
Students learn even more when that amount of quality instruction is complemented by parental involvement. “One of the neatest things I’ve seen,” says Susan Kalanick, who teaches third- and fourth-graders at Greenfield School near Great Falls, “is the number of dads who show up in my classroom now.” Kalanick, who has been involved with Hooked on Fishing since 1997, says the program attracts fathers who ordinarily wouldn’t spend time in the classroom. “It’s something they feel comfortable with,” she says. “I’ve had dads come in to work with my class during their lunch hour or take time off work to fish with our class. I’ve never seen this level of parent involvement before.”

Kalanick reports on another new development related to the program. “I now have girls who come into school and talk to their friends about going fishing over the weekend with their family,” she says. “I love seeing the girls get involved with fishing.”

Kalanick believes fishing provides an alternative to harmful activities such as drug abuse. “It gives these kids something to do,” she says. “It’s a productive way (for them) to spend time away from school without getting into trouble. The activities we do in class help them develop an interest in many areas and learn the skills they need to go out and enjoy fishing on their own.”

Recent national studies bear out Kalanick’s observations. A 2001 study by Cornell University showed that students participating in the Hooked on Fishing Program were more likely to become environmental stewards. Another by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that teaching positive life skills, such as those promoted in Hooked on Fishing, significantly lowers the incidence of drug use later in life.

Pat Volkmar, an industrial technology teacher from North Middle School in Great Falls, doesn’t need a study to prove that fishing can keep kids out of trouble. He has learned it firsthand.
“ I’m one of those guys,” says Volkmar, “who would have ended up in prison if I hadn’t been able to go fishing during my school years.”

Though never a team sport player, Volkmar says he was always good at fishing and as a teen spent most of his free time carrying a fishing rod. “Instead of stealing hubcaps and breaking windows,” he says, “I was sneaking around ponds trying to catch fish.”

Because Volkmar thinks fishing is just as important to some of his students, he volunteers as an advisor in an after-school fishing club. The group meets every other week and goes fishing one Saturday each month. Currently, about 20 students attend the meetings and club outings.

According to Volkmar, few of the kids in the club had previously taken part in any school-related activities. “I’ve seen too many kids who just drift off after school ends,” he says, “and that’s often when trouble begins.” For some in the club, he adds, fishing has become a skill that ignites a spark, motivating them to concentrate, to practice, and even to excel. “You should see some of these kids with a rod in their hands,” Volkmar says. “It’s like magic".Bear bullet

Dave Hagengruber is FWP's angler education specialist