ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Reeling in relationships: Duluth police connect with kids through fishing

"Nothing but good" can come from the weekly bonding opportunity with the city's youth, an organizer said.

Police officers and elementary students on a pontoon with fishing rods
Fifth graders from Stowe Elementary School who went on a fishing trip with officers from the Duluth Police Department on the St. Louis River on June 7 received new fishing rods as part of the department's "Get Hooked on Fishing" program.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
We are part of The Trust Project.

ON THE ST. LOUIS RIVER — When the fish aren't biting, Ken Zwak has a solution.

"If you're out on Lake Superior, you do the Salmon Dance," the Duluth police lieutenant says. "But if you're here on the St. Louis River, you've got to do the Walleye Waltz."

Zwak throws his arms wide in the air, as if posing with a big catch, and begins spinning in a circle. "You've got to do it with me," he tells a group of fifth graders, leading them through the whimsical dance aboard a pontoon.

It's hardly a normal day at the office for the city's west area commander.

Every Tuesday throughout the summer, Zwak and a couple fellow officers team up to take a handful of local kids out on an area lake or stream for the Duluth Police Department's "Get Hooked on Fishing" program. Mixing recreation and education, Zwak said it's an example of proactive community policing that helps officers build positive relationships with local youth.

ADVERTISEMENT

Duluth Police Lt. Ken Zwak
Duluth Police Lt. Ken Zwak looks on while riding in the police department's pontoon boat on a fishing trip with fifth graders from Stowe Elementary School.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

For a few hours, Zwak leads the excursions. He asks the kids to call out the various birds they see along the way and name all the species of fish native to the area. He leads them in games like Simon Says and points out landmarks like the Oliver Bridge. He gives hands-on tutorials about how to cast a line and reel in a big one.

"It's about having fun; catching a fish is a bonus," Zwak said. "I always like doing the dances. My dad did that when I was a little kid fishing on Lake Superior. It's one of those things that I've done with my nieces and nephews. And when we come out here now, it's just so much fun. There are smiles on their faces and laughter. And that's what we're here for."

Students playing Simon Says with a police officer
Duluth Police Lt. Ken Zwak, right, leads a game of Simon Says during a fishing trip on the St. Louis River as part of the department's "Get Hooked on Fishing" program.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Last week, a group of eight Stowe Elementary School students joined Zwak and fellow officers Jim Forsyth and Bill Helgemoe on picture-perfect day early summer day, taking a ride in department squad cars to their departure point at Mont du Lac Marina.

"The best part was probably fishing," said Izaiah Sorvik.

A boy casts with a fishing rod
Izaiah Sorvik, 11, a fifth grader at Stowe Elementary School, practices casting.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"Snacks," said Eli Pfeffer.

"The drinks," opined Keira Bunt.

The students earned the opportunity to skip out on a portion of the school day as a result of winning the school's Peacemaker Awards — given monthly to those who show qualities of strong character and kindness, as once described by Martin Luther King Jr.

Boy looks at his new fishing rod
Jameson Skafte, 10, a fifth grader at Stowe Elementary School, looks at his new fishing rod. Each of the students on the trip received a new rod.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Teacher Jessica Graves said the 10- and 11-year-olds were brimming with excitement.

ADVERTISEMENT

"They love getting out of the classroom, and Stowe is a very environmental school," she said. "We focus a lot on being outside and being in nature. So this is a really fun opportunity for them."

Police officer drives a pontoon boat
Duluth police officer James Forsyth, left, drives the police department's pontoon boat during a fishing trip on the St. Louis River.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Throughout the summer, Zwak said the department will rely on community groups like the Valley Youth Center, Neighborhood Youth Services and the Boys & Girls Club to provide kids for the outings. They usually take around eight kids ranging in age from elementary to high school ages, along with an adult representative from the organization.

The program actually started some 25 years ago, when Zwak, then a new officer, was among a handful of officers who were recruited to join local kids in fishing from shore. That lasted for a few summers until it was dissolved, with Zwak in 2017 reviving the program that he saw as particularly beneficial to community relations.

Police officers and elementary students on a pontoon boat
Members of the Duluth Police Department and fifth graders from Stowe Elementary School in Duluth gather on the police department's pontoon boat docked at Mont du Lac Marina.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"When I was a sergeant working the street, there was a guy that was unbelievably upset, demanding a supervisor to come to the scene," he recalled. "And I got to the scene and the guy looks at me and says, "You're Officer Zwak. You took me fishing.' It totally deescalated the situation. I didn't remember him, but he remembered me. It just totally shows how much doing this and building relationships with the kids means."

This time, the program has been a hit. The department has received numerous donations, with Cabela's helping get the program off the ground and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources later offering a grant. Last week, the Larry and Donna Pulkrabek Foundation presented a $9,999 check. Local businesses including Marine General and Chalstrom's offer supplies and bait.

Three girls sitting in a boat with fishing poles
Nevaeh Jones, 10, from left, Aubrey Dryke, 11, and Keira Bunt, 11, sit on the Duluth Police Department's pontoon boat and hold their new fishing rods after a day of fishing. Each are fifth graders at Stowe Elementary School.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Donations funded the purchase of the 30-foot pontoon in 2020, but pandemic restrictions over the past two years has meant this will be the first summer it gets regular use. The boat, docked at Pier B, allows for excursions under the Aerial Lift Bridge and out onto Lake Superior — a magical experience, Zwak said, for kids who have never been out of the water before.

Two boys get ready to start fishing from a pontoon boat
Eli Pfeffer, front, and Izaiah Sorvik, both 11, get ready to fish. Both are fifth graders at Stowe Elementary School in Duluth and were invited for a day of fishing as part of the Duluth Police Department's "Get Hooked on Fishing" program.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"Nothing but good can come from going out fishing," he said. "There's so many places in the city of Duluth that you can take a bus to or walk to. If you learn this skill, you can use it. It's a good thing; it keeps you out of trouble."

The donations also now ensure that each child leaves with a T-shirt, fishing rod and tackle box — physical keepsakes to remember their day with the police department.

ADVERTISEMENT

So what did the kids learn?

"That policemen can be fun," Eli said.

A boy sits and holds a fishing rod
Jameson Skafte, 10, a fifth grader at Stowe Elementary School, poses while waiting for a fish to bite.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Two elementary students look at a police officer during a fishing trip
Eli Pfeffer, 11, center, looks at Duluth Police Lt. Ken Zwak, right, while Mackenzie Starkey, 11, looks on during a game of Simon Says.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
A planer board gliding through the water
A side planer board glides through the water during a fishing trip on the St. Louis River for fifth graders at Stowe Elementary School.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Police officers, elementary students and a foundation member on a boat holding up a large check
Mike O'Hara of the Larry and Donna Pulkrabek Foundation, right, poses with Duluth Police Department officers and students and personnel from Stowe Elementary School at Mont du Lac Marina. The foundation donated $9,999.00 to the department’s ‘Get Hooked on Fishing’ program.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
What to read next
Breaking News
The victim died at a local hospital.
Stevie and Sandy Paulson, along with the Northland Campus of Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, hosted the 14th Annual Breezy Point 5K north of Duluth on Saturday. The walk-bike-run race starts and ends in the Paulson’s driveway at their home on Island Lake. Over 550 people registered for the race, which raises funds and awareness for Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge. In 2021, the event raised more than $60,000 and overall, the Breezy Point 5K has raised over $350,000 for recovery from addiction.
Fewer in-person summer school options could make it tough for students to catch up academically.
Bygones is researched and written by David Ouse, retired reference librarian from the Duluth Public Library. He can be contacted at djouse49@gmail.com.