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SAUGATUCK — Salmon in the Classroom is one of the Department of Natural Resources’ most successful educational campaigns. Most years, some 300 teachers have aquaria in their rooms, where they raise salmon — which arrive as fertilized eggs from a DNR weir — and then release them into local waterways.The program took a hit this year with many schools curtailing classroom instruction in the wake of COVID-19. But the DNR made some adjustments — including YouTube videos produced by program director Tracy Page that allowed students and teachers who didn’t get the hands-on experience this year to watch the progress of eggs to fingerlings to smolts.And some of the schools that did participate didn’t get eggs this fall; the DNR supplied them with fingerlings in January instead.
But with COVID restrictions easing, some school districts have cranked back up to full speed. And after canceling its end-of-year field trip last year because of the virus, the Saugatuck Sport Fishing Association, which sponsors the local sixth graders here, resumed its mission to not only help the youngsters in the classroom, but to give them the opportunity to “complete the circle,” as charter boat skipper Dave Engel puts it, and take the kids fishing.So I found myself aboard Engel’s “Best Chance Too” along with his first mate Matt Dewitt, school superintendent Tim Travis, para-pro Tanja Peter and four sixth graders.Fishing, which had been pretty good this spring, slowed just before the event, Engel said, and it started slowly for us that day, too.We’d left port at 6: 30 a.m. and didn’t have a strike until 9: 15. But when we did, it was the kind of fish that made Lake Michigan’s salmon fishery famous — a 28-pound chinook, which turned out to be the biggest fish caught among the 16 boats participating.Travis, who was a middle school principal before he took over as super, described the Salmon in the Classroom as “just fantastic.”“It’s a great way for the kids to learn about natural resources and we’re in a community that values that,” he said. “This is a great day for the kids; not many kids get a field trip like this.”Indeed. Though many of the schools that participate try to tie the program in with fishing, not many have the resources to put on the kind of event that the Saugatuck crew does.It isn’t easy. The association has to recruit captains from other ports to get enough boats to take 60-plus youngsters fishing. Then they feed them — members of the association fry some of the fish caught, but there are hot dogs and side dishes as well — and send every youngster home with a rod and reel. The association holds a fundraising tournament every summer to help pay for the event and numerous community businesses — from banks to pizza joints — chip in, too.“We’ve got 67 kids this year and it’s amazing how many have never been fishing before,” Engel said. “The captains get a lot out of taking these kids out. It’s a feel-good project for the whole community. We get plaudits and compliments all year from this one day.”Engel has high praise for Katie Hankins, the sixth grade science teacher who has overseen the program for 11 years.
“We couldn’t have this program if we didn’t have a dedicated teacher,” he said.Hankins, who has three, sixth-grade classes, does most of her fish work — testing the water quality, cleaning the tanks, changing the water — during lunch hour so all the kids who want to (she asks for volunteers) can participate in the chores.“One of the things I love is that some of the kids who don’t necessarily like school but they love nature — they’re already fishermen — are into it,” Hankins said. “This gives them a different career path — maybe working for the DNR.”Engel said the fishing event would not be possible without the effort of John Watson, who is the association’s treasurer and tournament director. Watson not only organizes the fishing event and arranges for the boats, he’s the head fry cook, too.“We’re pretty passionate about this day,” Watson said. “Some of these kids will ever be on Lake Michigan again, so we think it’s a part of education.”Fishing was reasonably slow for all the boats. Best Chance Too managed to land four fish, which gave every youngster an opportunity to crank one in. And that’s about how it went — roughly one fish per student across the board.The weather complied; one year it was so rough on the lake that the boats just trolled the river.“We didn’t catch very much,” Hankins said. And other years, when the lake was bumpy, a few students succumbed to bouts of mal de mer, though it has never been so tough that the outing had to be canceled.“We’ve fished some times when it’s been choppy, but I heard the kids joking about how they threw up when they got back to the dock,” Engel said.Most of the kids enjoyed the experience. Of those I talked with, the most common description of the event was “cool.”The association also supports a couple of classrooms in other school districts and it has no intention of scaling back as long as the DNR maintains the program. Engel knows such programs are in the best long-term interest of people like him who are involved in the industry.“We need less X-boxes,” he said, “and more tackle boxes.”
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