It takes grit to endure the cold of a frozen lake—but for Sunrise Park middle schoolers, it’s worth it for that flash of scales beneath the ice and the sense of accomplishment at hauling in your catch. 

Thirty students in grades 6-8 are now members of a brand new school fishing club, led by social studies teacher Ryan Fitzpatrick and math teacher Travis Littlefield. 

In past years, Sunrise Park has hosted a February Follies event, which encourages teachers to arrange special field trips and lessons to introduce kids to some of their personal learning passions. As a graduate of White Bear schools, Fitzpatrick remembered making homemade fishing jigs with his classmates during his time at Sunrise Park. In his role as a teacher, Fitzpatrick partnered with Littlefield and took it a step further, bringing kids ice fishing during the February Follies. For many students, it was a completely new experience, and for at least one, it served as a complete introduction to winter in Minnesota. 

“We had one student who had never seen snow,” Littlefield said. “He was maybe two weeks in the country and he decided to come with us fishing, and caught the first fish, a northern. To this day he loves the outdoors and wants to come fishing with us again.” 

February Follies wasn’t possible this year, with COVID-19 precautions in place, but Fitzpatrick was inspired to get the kids on the ice in a new way. He applied for grant funding from the Minnesota DNR, and later caught the attention of Cabela’s, which also supplied grant money. The club advisers were able to purchase equipment such as rods, heaters and even hats for the 30 students in the club. The club meets twice a week until the end of February; spending one day on the ice, and one participating in a virtual learning session related to ice fishing. These lessons ask students to familiarize themselves with regulations and records, as well as learn about fish biology and conservation. The club members are divided into groups, who fish on alternate days on Centerville Lake and Bald Eagle Lake. The club stayed indoors during the cold snap in early February.

“We’ve been really safe; the ice has been really good for us,” Fitzpatrick said. “The biggest issues we face are tangled lines.” 

Fitzpatrick and Littlefield see the club as a great opportunity to pass along their deep love of ice fishing, as well as to encourage a love for the outdoors among their students. 

“So many kids are inside, on technology, especially in this time of the pandemic. We’ve had the opportunity to take them outside and do a sport they’re going to be able to know and love for the rest of their lives,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s a sport that’s been so popular lately, and there needs to be an idea of conservation moving forward. How do we keep this resource rolling and thriving? If we want to keep those resources, there has to be some kind of education process.”

But fun is always the biggest goal, Fitzpatrick said. 

Littlefield added that the club has been a much-needed opportunity for kids to socialize and bond during the difficult isolation of the pandemic. 

“They get to go hang out with a group of people, eating chips and catching fish,” Littlefield said. “They’re having fun in the (ice) house just being kids.” 

Littlefield is encouraged by the diversity of the club, which includes students of varying levels of fishing experience. Both boys and girls participate, as well as students of different ethnic and social backgrounds. “It makes it a pretty cool club that way,” he said.  “I sat down in one house with sixth grade boys who don’t have fathers in their lives; they would never have gotten to go ice fishing otherwise. It’s giving an experience to a kid who would never have had that experience, and they would never know if they like it unless given the opportunity.”

Practical skills are also an emphasis for club members, from setting up equipment to learning to fillet their catch. 

The Sunrise Park Ice Fishing Club runs an Instagram account called Northern Lights Outdoors, which has allowed them to share their successes with the public, and keep in touch with many former students who are still following their passions for outdoor sports. 

Although the club hasn’t been around long, Fitzpatrick and Littlefield are encouraged by its early success, and are entertaining the idea of expanding beyond Sunrise Park and into community services. 

“We haven’t had trouble finding volunteers to come up and help,” Fitzpatrick said. “What we really want to do at some point is take these kids to Mille Lacs or Lake of the Woods on an overnight trip and experience what it would be like fishing on a body of water that is so large that you drive a mile on the water.”

Or at least to let the kids chase the king of Minnesota fish: the walleye. 

“You can’t really find them in the metro; it’s not like they’re in abundance and easy to catch,” he said. “We’re hoping in the future that could be a reality.” 

For those interested in following along with the club or offering their own fishing expertise or equipment, Fitzpatrick welcomes messages through the Northern Lights Outdoors Instagram page. 

“Growing this community of ice fishing people has been really cool,” he said. “Maybe more people can reach out and learn more. Minnesota is cold; it’s what do you do when there’s nothing to do.” 

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