By Dennis Jensen
CASTLETON — There were kids everywhere, but something was missing. Not one child could be seen with his or her face hypnotized by a cellphone. There were no iPads and no video games. Instead, the kids were fishing, learning how to fish through the ice, or eating fresh fish.
Ali Thomas, education manager for Vermont Fish & Wildlife, put it best.
“This just showed how good it can be to see kids unplugged and outside,” she said.
Thomas, with a small army of workers from the Fish & Wildlife Department and volunteers, put in a good part of their day to hold Vermont’s fifth annual Free Ice Fishing Day recently at Lake Bomoseen State Park in Castleton.
An hour before the event closed, with people still trickling in, there were about 200 people attending the festivities, with instructors introducing new anglers — children and adults — to the methods and joys of ice fishing.
Thomas was impressed with both the turnout and the enthusiasm of those in attendance.
“I think it can be daunting if you’re an angler but not sure how to pass on your knowledge,” she said. “This event, with our trained volunteers and staff, helps get children into fishing. Anything that gets kids outdoors is a good activity.”
Fish & Wildlife set up six stations for kids who want to learn about ice fishing. Topics included knot tying and tackle craft, fish identification and regulations, ice fishing equipment and setting a tip-up, how to stay warm on the ice, hole drilling and clean up, and fishing techniques.
One very popular station, meanwhile, had volunteers and Fish & Wildlife biologists frying up and serving fresh fish filets. Hot chocolate, at another tent next to the scrumptious fish fry, kept the anglers warm. Not that a hot drink was really necessary. With temperatures in the mid-40s and little wind, it was an untypical day out on the ice in late January.
Adults and kids crowded the various stations. And just beyond the festival, a good collection of anglers, not connected to the festival, were out on the ice, fishing the deep freeze.
Tom Jones, a Fish & Wildlife pathologist, manned the station where kids got to learn how to fish with a jig, a short fishing pole. He showed 5-year-old Hunter Ellis of Fair Haven and his younger brother Rowan, 2½, how to handle a jigging rod, how to bait it, and how to know when a fish took the bait.
Jones, a Northfield resident who a Fish & Wildlife employee once told me is an outstanding trout angler who catches and releases big fish, said he was impressed with the turnout and the enthusiasm of those who showed up.
“Just look around at all of these people,” he said. “It’s so great to be out here with first-time learners. It’s so enjoyable to be able to teach kids and adults about ice fishing and all aspects of ice fishing. What an awesome day we have.”
Jackson Kitts, an 11-year-old from Rutland, got a big thrill at the station where new ice fishermen were shown the proper way to use a hand auger.
“This is my first time ice fishing,” he said. “I got to drill the hole in the ice.”
Louis Porter, the Fish & Wildlife commissioner, was out on the ice, wearing his bright-red Fish & Wildlife jacket and a broad smile. Earlier that morning, in fact, at around sunrise, Porter and several employees managed to get in some fishing on their own. They caught several fish, including a nice brown trout.
“One of the greatest things about this event — just like the summer festival we hold — is that it’s designed to get kids out here to fish, even if they are not from a fishing background,” he said. “Every year, we get to see kids catch their first fish. Sometimes we get to see adults catch their first fish.”
As an added bonus, a number of ice fishermen “not connected to the festival, brought us some perch to fry up this morning. I thought that was pretty cool,” said Porter.
Porter said that among the volunteers for the day were students from the University of Vermont.
The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department deserves credit for this kind of outreach, holding an event that was free, entertaining and educational, with the emphasis on getting children, as well as adults, into the outdoors.
Contact Dennis Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org