SAUGATUCK — Salmon in the Classroom is one of the Department of Natural Resources’ most successful outreach/education programs. The DNR supplies fertilized chinook salmon eggs to elementary or middle school classes which hatch the eggs, raise the fry to fingerling size, and then release them into a local Great Lakes tributary.

Last year 270 schools participated, involving some 22,000 students, who raised 25,000 salmon for release — and the DNR expects the program to grow about 10 percent next year. It’s doubtful that any of those home-grown salmon ever recruit into the fishery but, hopefully, the youngsters absorb some biology, chemistry and ecology in the process, which is the point.

Still, one group of sportsmen thinks the youngsters should hear the rest of the story, so to speak; every spring the Saugatuck Sport Fishing Association takes the 50-80 youngsters in the local school program — as well as some teachers and parents — fishing in Lake Michigan. It’s been going on for 13 years, and not only the schools and anglers but the entire community have embraced the event.

“We figured it would play down after a few years, but it’s a huge hit,” said Dave Engel, a charter boat skipper and one of the driving forces behind the on-the-water field trip. “I can’t go anywhere in the community without someone bringing it up.”

This year, I wound up on Hunter Engel’s (Dave’s son) boat with his first mate (Hunter’s wife, Holly) and four sixth-graders from Saugatuck Middle School. We spent most of the morning — everybody was supposed to be back in by 11:30 for the fish fry — trolling around in 75 to 100 feet of water, catching lake trout. Engel, who’d been fishing out of South Haven for the previous week, said he knew where the lakers were, and though a few chinooks had started to show up, he thought he’d go with the sure thing. It was a smart bet; the youngsters boated 11 lake trout and let a few more get away.

“We had an absolute blast,” Engel said, when it was over, “lots of lake trout and the kids had a lot of excitement. I love to see how much this has grown — we have a whole new generation of kids.”

One of them was Annie Molenhouse, who said she’d been on boats before, but this was her first trip on a charter boat and her first time fishing on Lake Michigan.

“It was fun,” she said. “A lot of fun.”

Jordan Campbell, a sixth-grade math teacher who often accompanies some youngster on a boat, described the program as “awesome, a unique experience for our kids. Even though they’re living near the water, a lot of them have never been on the water.”

That was part of Dave Engel’s thinking when he thought up the field trip.

“We recognized how many kids have never done it, who never had an opportunity,” he said. “It is an equipment intensive sport.”

Engel’s boat, Best Chance, Too, was one of 19 that took the 76 youngsters out this year. The Sport Fishing Association recruited anglers from Holland and South Haven to help out.

“The majority of boats are from out of town because we really don’t have that many boats,” Engel said. “It costs those guys hundreds of dollars to bring their boats up here to fish.”

The Sport Fishing Association holds an annual tournament in August to raise funds to buy the equipment for the classrooms; it funds five different schools, Engel said.

“It costs about $1,800 to set up a classroom,” he said. “It takes a lot of dedication for a teacher to take this on, so if we can find a teacher who’ll do it, we’ll pay for it.”

Katie Hankins, the sixth-grade science teacher at Saugatuck Middle School, has been running the program for 10 years and it’s gotten easier, she said, because she’s learned what to expect and how to troubleshoot problems.

“We’ve got a real good system and they’ve been great about making sure we’ve got everything that we need,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for our kids to see why fisheries are important and why we want to have fish in our lakes. It’s a great opportunity for them to see and appreciate the natural resources we have here.”

John Watson, a local angler who has taken on running the program, said the group gets requests from nearby school districts to help set up the program in their schools — and as long as the districts can raise the funds, it will.

“Everybody helps out and pitches in,” he said as he fried fish. “Tower Marina lets boats come in the night before and tie up without charge.”

At the end of the event, all the youngsters receive a rod and reel to keep — and hopefully, use.

“Our motto,” Dave Engel said, “is more tackle boxes, fewer Xboxes.”

Bob Gwizdz is a longtime outdoors writer and has also worked in public affairs for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

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