CHERRY, Minn. — Ten-year-old Joey Smith, a fifth-grader at Cherry School, clutched the northern pike in two gloved hands. The wide-eyed fish, still wiggling, glistened in the sunshine and zero-degree air.
Joey had just emerged from a heated fishing shelter on Long Lake near Cherry. He and nearly 90 other fourth- and fifth-graders from the school were taking part in an annual fishing and outdoors day on the lake.
Nobody had to teach Joey how to tell a fishing story.
"The line was going straight down," he said. "I reeled it in. It felt very heavy."
The fish was a solid two pounds.
"My mom will be glad," Joey said. "We'll probably cook it for a meal."
This was Joey's first time ice-fishing, and that is just what this day on the ice was all about, said Brian Kemp, a fourth-grade teacher who helped conceive the event.
"We grew up here, and we realized a lot of our kids didn't have that opportunity," Kemp said. "We thought it would be a great way to get kids outdoors."
This is the fourth year that Kemp and fellow teachers — Ashley Lesemann, Lisa Repensky and Pat Rossini — have taken their students to Long Lake for a day of ice-angling, tip-up fishing, snowshoeing and winter survival class time. Another 15 or so parents or grandparents had come along to assist.
Joey gave much of the credit for his angling success to volunteer Jon Sikkila of Cherry, who coached him after the pike took his minnow and bare-hook offering.
"He just told me how to do all the stuff," Joey said.
Elsewhere on the lake, young anglers watched tip-up lines, waiting for a bite. Snowshoers learned to roll on their backs, then roll on their sides to regain their footing after a fall. Then they were off, running across the lake, kicking up clouds of snow in their wake. Everybody was dressed for the cold. Like true northerners, none of the kids — or adults — complained about the weather. Most fourth-graders were paired with a fifth-grader for the day's activities.
"You wouldn't believe how many kids have never been snowshoeing, or haven't even been fishing, let alone ice-fishing," said Repensky, a fourth-grade teacher at Cherry School.
"Ultimately," Kemp said, "we hope they continue to carry this over and take up fishing. It also builds good relationships between the fourth-graders and fifth-graders."
The teachers, with donations from local businesses, pulled together as much fishing equipment and as many snowshoes as they could for the first three years. Last year, they applied for and received a $5,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, as part of its Angler and Hunter Recruitment and Retention Grant Program. That allowed the teachers to buy large pop-up fishing shelters, heaters, rods, reels, tip-ups, ice augers and new snowshoes.
The grant has made a big difference in having all the equipment the classes need, Repensky said.
"Oh, my gosh," Repensky said. "It's a whole different experience now."
Three of the young anglers — fifth-grader Gianna Figueroa of Hibbing, fourth-grader Rylyn Cooper of Cherry and fourth-grader Nehemiah Figueroa of Hibbing — built a shelter of snow blocks around their tip-up.
Two other young anglers — fourth-graders Gunnar Galaski of Iron and Lucca Ramponi of Virginia — stared intently at a sonar fish-finder, hoping that a fish they "saw" on the screen would take Gunnar's bait. But it wasn't to be.
Elsewhere, fifth-grader Amelia Lind of Hibbing was watching a tip-up with Noah Asuma, a fourth-grader from Cherry. Amelia, 10, explained why she and her classmates were out ice-fishing.
"It's a great experience for people who usually don't get to come outside," Amelia said. "I really like it because it's physical activity and you get to run around, and being in a classroom — who likes learning all the time and not having any fun? I think everyone likes it out here."
Not far away, fourth-graders Leanna Laine of Hibbing and Hannah Clawson of Eveleth stood together watching their tip-up and waiting for a bite.
Leanna would occasionally glance at the tip-up, but mostly she was looking around at the other kids, the brilliant snow atop Long Lake and the wooded point that jutted into the bay.
"It's fun here," she said.
About the DNR's Angler and Hunter Recruitment and Retention grants
Since 2016, the DNR has awarded grants for 35 projects totalling $480,000, said Jeff Ledermann, DNR education and skills team supervisor. The agency hopes to offer another round of grants this summer, he said. For more information, go to dnr.state.mn.us/angler_hunter_grants.
"This grant program aids groups in trying to help more people take up fishing and hunting," Ledermann said. "People who hunt and fish in Minnesota create a conservation model that works because fishing and hunting license dollars pay for maintaining and improving fish and wildlife populations and habitats."