Fishing first timers
Cole Johnson knows how special it can be to spend time ice fishing with loved ones, so seeing a father and daughter together on Lake Darling like Alexandria's Jay Chipman and 6-year-old Ruby made the hours he spent volunteering this past weekend all worth it.
"I lost my dad like six months ago to leukemia," Johnson said. "I was raised to fish. My grandfather now has Alzheimer's and I just lost my dad. Some of my biggest memories are growing up on the lakes with them. Now this guy is out here with his daughter. I know after losing my father recently that those are some of the greatest memories you'll keep with you."
Johnson was running the two-day event with fellow Eden Prairie resident Joe Johnson through the Dive Guys Big Fish and Fry program, which allows veterans and children to experience ice fishing for free. The two friends were set up not far off the boat landing at Arrowwood Resort with portable houses equipped with heaters, vexilars and all the equipment anglers would need. Participants could sign up in two-hour intervals starting at 8 a.m. and running through 6 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday.
"We've had about 50-60 kids overall," C. Johnson said. "We've had up to five houses full at any time, so four to five kids in there. People who have never even walked on the ice before or caught fish, they came out and caught some fish and had a good, fun time."
The red Eskimo fish houses were set up over a big school of perch that hung around and kept anglers entertained much of the weekend. The two hosts showed kids how to use their rods and reels, how the underwater cameras worked and were there to answer any questions while letting them enjoy time with their friends and families.
"It's pretty fun," J. Johnson said. "I enjoy being with the kids and helping people try new things. My dad taught me to fish when I was younger, so to help with other kids who don't get to go fishing that often, to help them get on the lake and catch some fish is awesome."
Ruby Chipman has been fishing with her family on open water but had never fished through the ice until Sunday afternoon.
"I grew up in Iowa and didn't do much ice fishing but always enjoyed fishing," Jay said. "We always do quite a bit in the summer and we just happened to be at the resort eating the other day and saw the flyer and thought we would come check this out."
Ruby was chatting away in the heated ice house as she looked down the hole in hopes of enticing another perch to bite after catching a couple already.
"I've got some of the gear myself, but getting the time to get it all out and get out to a lake can be tough," Jay said. "Especially making sure it's a time when both of us can come. It's just kind of nice to have everything set up and come out and use it. They've got a little camera down the hole, and I don't have anything like that. It's a great program."
Dive Guys Big Fish and Fry is in its first year of existence and was started by friends from St. Paul in Pat Walrath and Matt Wilkie. The program hosts overnight events on Red Lake and Lake Mille Lacs. They also travel across the state for day programs like the one in Alexandria that help take kids, veterans and their families onto the ice. The program is currently funded by donations to offset travel, equipment and bait costs, but Walrath and Wilkie are hoping to receive some grant money in the future to keep it going.
Kids have caught everything from perch and crappies to pike and walleyes and even a tiger muskie on an outing in Eden Prairie through the program this winter.
"First tiger muskie I have ever seen in my life, and I've fished for them," C. Johnson said. "It was about a 26-incher, and this kid just happened to catch it on a tip-up. That's pretty awesome."
Seeing the reaction of pulling up a fish like that for a 10-year-old kid is why Walrath and Wilkie started the program. It's why Joe and Cole Johnson were eager to travel around the state to help provide an opportunity for families like the Chipmans.
"It's touching, and it's incredible to see," Cole said. "They don't even know they're out here making a lifelong memory, but I do. We like being able to provide that."