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Let's Go Fishing volunteers know how to set the hook

Jenaye Vergin, 7, of Sun Prairie, Wis., casts as wary look at the sunfish that needs to be unhooked. Jenaye and her brothers and sister enjoyed a day of fishing on Green Lake with Let's Go Fishing with Seniors volunteers and her grandparents, Donald and Nancy Vergin. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

SPICER -- Roger Benson and Ray Oie spend their summer days baiting hundreds and hundreds of fishing hooks but almost never pull up a fish.

Yet they consider themselves among the luckiest guys on the water.

As volunteers with the Willmar chapter of Let's Go Fishing with Seniors, they let their guests catch the fish.

They take home the real trophies. "Story after story,'' said Benson of the tales his guests tell on the water.

There's a certain magic that happens on the water that neither of the two can easily explain.

They've seen it in so many ways. One guest with a group of nursing home residents started chatting about how the time on the water reminded her of her home in Norway. It was news to those around her: Staff people with the group later told Benson that the woman hadn't uttered a word in five years prior to boarding the pontoon.

On another outing, Benson became concerned when an elderly man began to quietly shed tears in the back of the pontoon. The man put Benson's worries to bay. "I was just thinking I'd never be able to do this again,'' Benson said the man told him to explain his tears of joy.

Benson and Oie had time to tell these and stories of their own on Aug. 18 as we drifted along the weed line in Emerald Bay on Green Lake. Donald and Nancy Vergin of Benson and their four young grandchildren visiting from Sun Prairie, Wis., were their guests on this adventure.

Xavier, 6, twin sisters Jenaye and Lori, 7, and Christian, 8, were excitedly working their slip bobbers and leach-tipped jigs, but the sunfish they sought were just not taking the bait.

"That's why they call it fishing and not catching,'' laughed Oie as he prepared to maneuver the pontoon boat for another run at the fish.

Earlier this summer, the sunfish action on the lake had been so frantic that volunteers were breaking sweats running from pole to pole, said Benson. He's seen 100 sunfish yanked from the waters (and returned) in as little as two hours.

He and Oie are among roughly 100 volunteers who contribute time in some fashion to the local chapter. Benson serves as its president. He's been volunteering with Let's Go Fishing for five years now, ever since he retired from a career in teaching.

He views his job as making sure everything runs well for the other volunteers. "So our volunteers will have as great a time as the people they take out,'' he said.

That's a tall order. The local chapter keeps two pontoon boats on the waters most weekdays through the summer months. The chapter remains on target to host 1,000 guests this summer.

The number would be higher, said Benson, but a two-week spat of hot and unsettled weather caused about 300 people to cancel their plans.

The chapter serves guests who come from a roughly 30- to 40-mile radius of Willmar.

Increasingly, the volunteers are hosting young people along with senior citizens on the outings. Let's Go Fishing knows the value of inter-generational activities, explained Benson.

Benson said he used to think the outing was all that mattered, until he was set straight by one of his passengers. He learned that anticipation of the trip, and the stories told about the trip for weeks afterwards, are just as important.

The fishing matters, too. Benson said this year there are probably three outings dedicated to fishing for every one where a pleasure cruise is the main goal. That's the reverse of previous years, he noted.

"Maybe we're getting a little better at catching fish,'' he added, laughing.

It was about this time that the sunfish -- though small -- caught up with the drifting bobbers and the excited young guests began hoisting them up.

Donald Vergin soon found himself with the hardest task of all: Convincing his grandchildren that they should return their palm-sized fish to the water.

This trip ended with a story like so many others that their chaperones have witnessed. "They don't want to go,'' said Donald Vergin after telling his grandchildren it was time to head to shore. "They don't want to stop fishing.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335