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New fishing league offers new opportunities for students

Alexandria sophomores Logan Croonquist (left) and Aaron Jost prepare to take off from shore with coach Jason Faith before the start of the Heart O' Lakes Fishing League's tournament on Lake Miltona on July 26. The Heart O' Lakes Fishing League, which features almost 300 kids, is in its first year as an organized fishing league. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)1 / 2
Alexandria's Solomon Oman (left) and boat captain Doug Kriese took first place in the Lake Miltona Tournament on July 26 in the Heart O' Lakes Fishing League. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

Alexandria's Dakota Schlangen has seen the reports that show a decline in hunters and anglers in Minnesota and across the country.

The Department of Natural Resources released more numbers this summer. Fishing license sales through early July were down 4.8 percent from the same time a year ago and to their lowest levels since 2013. The 805,242 licenses sold through the weekend after the Fourth of July is the second lowest number in the state in almost two decades.

The primary concern for many who love the outdoors tends to be figuring out ways to get kids outside. Schlangen, a soon-to-be-senior in high school, hears the common stereotypes. Kids don't want to get out of the house. Don't want to put down the phone. His hope is that a first-year fishing league that started this summer in West Central Minnesota with nearly 300 kids participating can help others realize that not all kids fit that stereotype.

"I think it creates awareness for everyone," Schlangen said. "People like this. Kids want to get into it. I hope it shows to other people who might not see kids as fishermen, outdoorsmen, who think they're just hanging out with their friends or going to parties, we're not all about that. We like to go fishing. I love to fish. It's about all I do. (This league) I think brings some awareness to there's something going on here and kids do want to get into this."

Teams within the newly formed Heart O' Lakes Fishing League met up at a public boat access on Lake Miltona on July 26 to get out for one of the eight scheduled tournaments in the league this summer. The Heart O' Lakes is split up into two divisions that fish four of those events each.

The North consists of kids from Hawley, Ulen-Hitterdal-Norman County East, Pelican Rapids, Barnesville, Detroit Lakes, Perham, New York Mills and Rothsay. The South features Alexandria, Fergus Falls, Bertha-Hewitt, Breckenridge, Minnewaska and Parkers Prairie.

Alexandria has had a fishing club in town for kids over the past few years, but this is different. The opportunity to fish in tournaments adds a new dimension to being on the water.

"It's just something different from fishing for fun to fishing against people," Alexandria sophomore Aaron Jost said. "Having that competition makes it more fun. It was fun to see we were going to get this (opportunity)."

Student anglers usually fish in teams of two on a boat with one adult captain. Unlike some other youth fishing leagues around the state, captains can do almost everything in the boat to help the kids out - read electronics, even fish themselves.

"A big part of that is, especially with bass fishing when you're casting and working baits, if the captain catches three and your student angler hasn't caught one, that catches their attention," Alexandria coach Jason Faith said. "Then they want to learn. What are you doing differently? Then you have that learning process."

The Heart O' Lakes is a multi-species, catch, record, release league. Teams are given a score sheet to track their catches of bass, walleye, northern, crappies, bluegills—muskies earn bonus points on Miltona—during each tournament. The longer the fish measures, the more it scores from one to five points. There is no weigh-in in an attempt to keep the fish healthy by getting them back in the water as quickly as possible.

Alexandria's team features about a dozen kids right now and half a dozen volunteers that serve as captains. Alexandria placed two teams in the top three finishers during a tournament on Ten Mile Lake in Otter Tail County in June. Two more finished in the top eight on Lake Miltona, with Solomon Oman and boat captain Doug Kriese winning the event.

"I've kind of been fishing my whole life, and I really enjoy this," Alexandria sophomore Logan Croonquist said, as he took eighth with Jost and Faith on Miltona. "I really enjoy fishing with these guys here. The more competition there is, I kind of like that."

Faith, who coaches Alexandria's team with Wade Traphagen, loves that kids can be competitive in fishing. His hope is that it grows into a passion longterm.

"I want them to have fun and to gain a new lifelong passion for fishing, really," Faith said. "You can do this when you're 80 years old. This is why we started the fishing club. This is the point of this league is to have fun and get kids passionate about the outdoors."

The Heart O' Lakes League is part of what Faith sees as a growing wave of momentum for youth fishing leagues and tournaments in Minnesota. Angling organizations across the state are making an emphasis on providing opportunities for hundreds of students to be able to fish in a competitive atmosphere.

As of now, those youth fishing leagues are not run under just one governing body. There is hope among angling enthusiasts that fishing for school-affiliated teams could follow the same path as the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League. That league, which wraps up its spring season with a Minnesota State High School League state tournament in June, had nearly 12,000 students from 349 high schools take part this season, a new record for participation.

"It's a good comparison," Faith said. "It wasn't always a sport. It became a sport because of the popularity."

Mitch Anderson, superintendent in Perham-Dent school district and one of the organizers of the Heart O' Lakes Fishing League, said one potential hurdle of making fishing a MSHSL sport is that once kids accept prizes in other tournaments, they become ineligible by MSHSL bylaws.

Much like the trap shooting league, Faith said he could see numbers doubling by next year in the Heart O' Lakes Fishing League if they can get enough volunteers to help out.

"This is something they can do their whole life," Faith said. "I think it's great what's happening. It's getting huge, it really is."

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

(320) 763-1229
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