ALBERT LEA, Minn. -- On Saturday, May 11, the focus on Fountain Lake will be the Governor’s Fishing Opener. But on Friday, the lake belonged to kids.

“Who knows what kind of fish that is,” Brandon Eder asked a group of area fifth graders as he pointed to black crappie swimming in an acrylic aquarium. Several hands shot up and the students began to chatter about the various fish species they have caught.

Eder is the Assistant Fisheries Supervisor in the Waterville Area for the Minnesota DNR. His aquarium contained a mix of crappies, sunfish, bass and pike sampled from area lakes.

He also showed the kids a wading pool that contained an assortment of bullheads, bass and a lone bowfin. “See how different their skin feels?” Eder asked. “The bullheads are smooth because they don’t have scales, but bass and sunfish do.”

Albert Lea fifth-grade students get up close the fish, feeling the difference between scaled and smooth-skinned fish. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service
Albert Lea fifth-grade students get up close the fish, feeling the difference between scaled and smooth-skinned fish. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service

At the next station, DNR Area Fisheries Supervisor Craig Soupir explained how fisheries personnel use nets to sample fish from lakes and rivers.

“Once we’re able to establish how many fish are in a lake, we can make decisions about how to improve the population,” he said. “Most of the time, that means stocking small fish that will one day be big enough for you to catch.”

DNR Area Fisheries Supervisor Craig Soupir shows students the hoop nets they use to sample fish populations. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service
DNR Area Fisheries Supervisor Craig Soupir shows students the hoop nets they use to sample fish populations. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service

A DNR stocking truck arrived carrying precious cargo: more than 50,000 walleye fry and approximately 1,000 fingerlings. DNR Fisheries Specialist Sky Wigen scooped the fingerlings from a large holding tank then passed the net to excited students. His volunteers hurried down to the fishing pier to release the young fish into Fountain Lake.

“We usually only stock walleye fingerlings in the fall on this lake,” Wigen said. “You guys are really helping us out.”

DNR Fisheries Specialist Sky Wigen scoops walleye fingerlings from a holding tank then passes the net to eager students. Approximately 1,000 fingerlings were released into Fountain Lake on Friday, May 10. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service
DNR Fisheries Specialist Sky Wigen scoops walleye fingerlings from a holding tank then passes the net to eager students. Approximately 1,000 fingerlings were released into Fountain Lake on Friday, May 10. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service

Then they gathered on the edge of the shoreline to watch Wigen release the tiny fry. “These baby fish probably hatched yesterday or even this morning,” Wigen said. “But someday they’ll be big enough for you to catch.”

After lunch, volunteers from the Albert Lea Anglers youth fishing club arrived to teach the fifth-grade students how to rig a rod and reel. After a bit of casting practice in a field at the park, it was time to fish.

The students chucked red and white bobbers around the perimeter of the fishing pier, and it wasn’t long before some were shouting, “fish on!”

Fifth graders took over the fishing pier at Edgewater Park on Fountain Lake. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service
Fifth graders took over the fishing pier at Edgewater Park on Fountain Lake. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service

Alex Henschel, a sophomore at Albert Lea Senior High School, has been an Albert Lea Anglers member for two years. He moved quickly from one end of the pier to the other, baiting hooks, freeing snags and removing tangles. “Fishing with kids is a lot of work,” he said.

The kids gathered again when Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan arrived with DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen to read a proclamation signed by Gov. Tim Walz:

“Whereas: Fishing is an important Minnesota tradition that draws people of all ages to our lakes, rivers and streams, to experience and grow their appreciation for natural resources and conservation; and

“Whereas: Fifth grade students from the Albert Lea Area Schools are helping sustain that tradition by learning fishing skills, aquatic biology, and how we all can keep our waters swimable and fishable through Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and fishing and aquatic resources curriculum; and

“Whereas: The interactions of students, teachers and volunteers, in partnership with the many sponsors of the 2019 Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener in the Albert Lea Area Lakes, Explore Minnesota Tourism and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, work together to create the next generation of Minnesota conservationists and anglers not only in the Albert Lea area but throughout the state.

“Now, therefore, I, Tim Walz, Governor of Minnesota, do hereby proclaim Friday, May 10, 2019, as Fishing Education Day.”

Then it was back to fishing.