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Free fishing: Ice angling program for vets, kids coming to Alexandria

A young angler scoops up some minnows during the Brainerd stop on Jan. 22 of the Dive Guys Big Fish and Fry. The ice fishing program that is free to kids and veterans is coming to Alexandria Feb. 11 and 12. (Submitted photo)

When Pat Walrath got a call from his buddy Matt Wilkie asking if he wanted to be a part of a venture to get kids and veterans out ice fishing this winter, Walrath didn't hesitate with an answer.

"I've wanted to try to throw something like this together, so when I got a call from Matt it was a good match," the St. Paul native said. "We are kind of five, six weeks into doing what we've been doing. Our first day on Lake Calhoun it was freezing cold and we had 50 people show up. It was awesome."

Walrath and Wilkie are co-founders of a complimentary ice fishing program called Dive Guys Big Fish and Fry that caters toward veterans, along with children and their families. The duo hosts overnight programs on Red Lake and Lake Mille Lacs. They also travel across the state for day programs that help take kids, veterans and their families onto the ice free of charge.

"Getting people used to what the equipment is, how do you reel up the fish, how to use a vexilar, use an underwater camera," Walrath said. "More than that, we try to build a little bit of community for families and friends sitting in these portable houses."

The day program will be in Alexandria in front of Arrowwood Resort on Lake Darling on Feb. 11 and 12 for those who want to take part. Fishing starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. both days. Participants are allowed to sign up for two-hour intervals at a time and are encouraged to register before the day of the event at Kids younger than 14 need to be accompanied by an adult.

"People can come out, they can pre-register, which is recommended but they can also show up on the spot and it's free to fish," Walrath said. "Donations are always accepted. It's not mandatory, but so far we have been a privately funded organization."

The two friends are in their first year offering the program. Costs have included portable ice houses purchased to travel with, along with heaters, gear and bait that is provided for the anglers. Each day program consists of 6-8 ice houses to fish out of that are warm and ready for use.

Anglers will catch fish on poles, along with tip-ups. The houses will be set up close enough to the access at Arrowwood so people can come and go as they please.

"That's the balance we try to reach," Walrath said. "Staying close enough to the access so people can come on and off at their leisure and also trying to put them on fish."

The program recently joined up with Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake near Brainerd where they put anglers on a number of fish from perch, pike and a 20-inch walleye, Walrath said. The two friends are only a couple months into this venture, but they hope it's something they can continue into the future as long as they can produce the funding and people keep showing up.

"We see the rewards through the smiles and the gratitude people have," Walrath said. "The fact that I'm seeing kids learning to fish or who touch a sunfish for the first time, that's the kind of stuff that says if we can continue to do this, we'd like to. I think we're building memories."

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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