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At Nashwauk-Keewatin High School, fishing class is in session

Teaching the "art and science of angling''

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Alex 'Bubba' Milstead gets a little help from teacher Luke Adam while spooling a reel in Spartan Angling fishing class Tuesday, March 3, at Nashwauk High School. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
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NASHWAUK — In one corner of Luke Adam’s classroom in the high school here, under the whiteboard usually reserved for math problems (show your work), a pile of ice fishing gear is accumulating.

There's a battery-powered ice auger, some flasher-style fish finders, a pop-up fishing shack, buckets of rods and reels, a few tackle boxes and a sled to tow gear onto the ice.

“There’s a lot more down in the store room. And all the summer fishing stuff is down there, too,’’ Adam said, explaining the gear is part of a “lend library” for fishing that kids can sign out and use whenever they want.

Adam, 41, loves his job teaching pre-algebra to junior high kids in the Nashwauk-Keewatin school district. He’s been doing it for 18 years. But he also loves to fish. He always has, since he was a kid growing up in Keewatin when his grandfather took him on fishing trips.

Now Adam has combined his passions for teaching and fishing in what may be the only official high school curriculum in Minnesota to offer a standing fishing class every semester.

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It’s called Spartan Angling, after the school’s sports moniker. It’s not a club, a fishing team, a section of a science class or an after-school project. It’s a for-credit, elective class open to students in grades 9-12. They meet from 2:15-3:05 p.m. every school day, and they are graded on their work.

“We don’t have tests, per se,’’ Adam said. “But they are graded on their class project, and their participation ... There's academic rigor here.”

The three R’s

The effort started just over a year ago when Adam was successful at landing a $20,000 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources grant aimed at “recruiting, retaining and reactivating” Minnesotans into outdoor sports like hunting and fishing. The number of participants in traditional outdoor activities continues to shrink in many areas, in some cases by alarming numbers, and wildlife lovers worry about the future of conservation if future generations don't connect to the outdoors.

So far the class has attracted a mix of already-hardcore anglers and kids who have never been fishing, or been only once or twice. Some are products of single-parent households who don’t have the time or money or connections to fishing. Others are disconnected by distance or circumstance from their grandparents who were avid anglers.

“We have that fishing tradition up here in northern Minnesota. We have these great natural resources right in our backyard. But, for more of these kids than you might think, they are a generation or more away from that tradition. We have kids in class who have never caught a walleye before in their lives,’’ Adam said.

The curriculum was approved by the Nashwauk-Keewatin School Board in January 2019. Adam started the class that same month and hasn’t looked back. It started with a dozen kids that first semester, mostly boys, but a few girls, too. He tries to keep it to 15 or fewer students each semester.

“It’s a good number to manage when we go on field trips,’’ the teacher said.

And they have gone on several of those field trips, including to local lakes spearing northern pike and ice fishing, as well as bigger trips to Lake Winnibigoshish and Lake of the Woods, where students caught a nearly five-foot-long sturgeon last spring. Class members are practically salivating over this spring's planned trip to Border View Lodge at Lake of the Woods for walleye.

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Math teacher Luke Adam assists students in setting up an Eskimo pop up ice fishing house in the hallway at Nashwauk High School during Spartan Angling fishing class Tuesday, March 3. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

“Obviously it’s good to see them work on their (class) projects. But it’s so much fun to watch them have a fish on the line,’’ Adam said.

The trips all happen during the school week, with the blessing of the administration. And everything is free of charge for all of the students.

“That’s what the grants have gone for,’’ Adam noted. The only expense any of them have is their fishing license, if they are 16 (or older) and need to buy one.”

Principal Ranae Seykora didn’t just okay Adam to teach the class, she’s gone out fishing with them, too, chaperoning on field trips.

“I grew up a Minnesota lake girl. I was a biology teacher. I know the benefits of getting students outside,’’ she said. “There are real benefits to learning about nature by being out in it.”

Rose Kuhlmann of Nashwauk took the Spartan Angling class the first semester it was offered. She grew up fishing with her family and represents the portion of the class who come in as seasoned anglers.

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“I mean, that's just what we did as a family. It was the weekend, so we went fishing,’’ the sophomore said. “But some of the kids in the class, they had never been (fishing) before. I couldn't imagine that, growing up in northern Minnesota.”

Even though she was a veteran angler, Kuhlmann said the class taught her a lot of new things about northern Minnesota lakes, rivers, fish and ecosystems — so much so that she now is looking at a career in fisheries biology.

“We learned so much about invasive species and fish habitat and keeping our lakes clean, about taking care of our lakes,’’ she said. “I’ve always thought of fishing as just something you did for fun. But when I found out you could make a living fishing, studying fish and lakes, I thought that would be a great career.”

This semester’s Spartan Angling class inspired Clayton Godwin of Pengilly to apply for a summer job as an invasive species inspector at boat landings, checking boats and trailers at Itasca County lakes and interacting with anglers before and after they fish.

“It pays pretty well,’’ Godwin said, but noted that’s not the only reason he’d like it. “Fishing has been my passion since I was in 6th grade. It would be great to be able to help the lakes by keeping invasive species out.”

That’s just the kind of switch Adam hopes to flip with the class. While not every student will go on to outdoor careers, his goal is to instill a love of and respect for the outdoors.

“It’s a life sport. It’s a family activity. It brings people together. It gets people off their electronics and outside. What’s not to like about fishing?’’ Adam said.

DNR officials are happy with Adam’s use of the grant money.

“We’ve had programs, like MinnAqua, in a lot of schools for many years now, in science classes and phy-ed classes across the state ... But this class is probably the most comprehensive effort we’ve seen,’’ said Jeff Lederman, who heads the DNR’s fish and wildlife recruitment effort.

Adam now is pursuing a second state grant, $8,500 from the Legislature's No Child Left Inside program enacted in 2019. He’s also received some grant funding through the school district for curriculum that might encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or math, so-called STEM fields.

Adam is also seeking private sponsorships. And he’s receiving unsolicited donations as more people, and more businesses, discover what his class is about. The list of sponsors keeps growing. Alumacraft boat company donated money. L & M Fleet Supply offered fishing tackle to expand the lend library for fishing gear for students in the class. There have been grants from the Grand Rapids and Nashwauk Community Foundation, Muskies Inc., Lews rod company, Women Anglers of Minnesota, the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association and more.

“I get people who walk up to me and say 'here’s an ice auger,' or 'here are some rods,' or 'here’s some money.' People are excited about what we’re trying to do,’’ Adam said.

Real science, real fun

On a recent afternoon in Adam’s classroom, Paige Groshong, a 9th grader, was finishing a class poster on rainbow trout, complete with some crayon art work. The poster included information Groshong had researched about the chrome-colored trout, including its habitats, its natural range, potential lures and baits to use for fishing rainbows and even trout recipes.

“I like fishing but I didn't get to do it much as a kid,’’ said Groshong. “So it’s fun to get that chance.”

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Freshman Paige Groshong adds to her project on rainbow trout during Spartan Angling fishing class Tuesday, March 3, at Nashwauk High School. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

In class, students identify fish species, learn where fish live (habitat) and what they eat. Then they learn about what those smaller critters eat and how they thrive — and things like you can’t have fish without fish food and clean water. That's called an ecosystem. There’s extensive class work on invasive species and on shoreline management and water quality, learning that what happens on land has a profound impact on what happens in the water. (On the recent field trip to Lake Winnibigoshish, students were amazed to see zebra mussels stacked on the lake bottom through crystal-clear water caused by the invasive zebra mussels filtering tiny organisms in the lake.)

Pretty soon kids in fishing class are learning fairly complex biology and life sciences. But they also learn about fishing — where to go to catch fish, angling tactics, how to read contour maps, fishing regulations like length limits and how to release fish without hurting them. And they learn about the history and evolution of fishing in Minnesota.

“You can't just say go jig for walleyes and expect them to understand,’’ Adam noted. “You have to teach them what a jig is. How to jig. When to jig; what time of year. Where to jig, where that walleye is going to be ... what it feels like when they bite.”

They even learn how to fillet and cook the fish they catch.

The goal, Adam says in a theme he used to get the class approved, is to create student anglers that are “stewards of Minnesota’s waters” by teaching them the “art and science of angling.”

Graduates of the class, Adam hopes, will have the basic skills needed to be lifelong anglers, to be successful on the water (who wants to keep doing something you aren’t successful at?) and to be aware of real conservation issues.

Some students have been begging for an advanced angling class, a hunting class and trapping classes, too.

“You never know. It could blossom into that,” Adam said. “It would be great if we could have fishing taught in every high school in Minnesota. That would be by goal.”

To donate time, money, or resources to Spartan Angling contact Luke Adam at ladam@isd319.org or 218-969-5517.

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Nashwauk-Keewatin math teacher Luke Adam (third from left) helps senior Alex 'Bubba' Milstead spool a reel in Spartan Angling fishing class Tuesday, March 3, as Alex Keranen (left) and Logan Wright (right) put the finishing touches on their project about smallmouth bass. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Fishing for students

Teachers and youth group leaders looking to connect kids to fishing don’t need to start from scratch or offer a semester-long class. There are several programs available to help teachers and group leaders teach fishing:

The National Fishing in Schools Program is a nationwide in-school program that teaches the positive lifetime activity of fishing to students in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. NFSP educates students about fish, insects, aquatic environment, resource stewardship and conservation using fishing, and learning the skill of casting, as the instructional tool. Go to fishinginschools.org.

Minnesota Trout in the Classroom is an educational arm of Minnesota Trout Unlimited. The group received grant funding from the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund for our project “Connecting Students with Water Stewardship through Hands-on Learning.”

Teachers use trout as a platform to implement educational opportunities for students to learn about watersheds, water quality, fish biology, and wetland ecology in hands-on lessons and field days. The program provides aquariums for teachers so classes can raise trout from eggs to fingerlings, which the students release into a designated trout stream or pond in the spring.

The program has 44 tanks in schools and nature centers across Minnesota — from Northome in the far reaches of northern Minnesota to Winona and Rochester in the south. The program is intended for grades 4-12, includes field trips and visits from Trout Unlimited members to run activities on topics such as fish life cycles, adaptations, watershed ecology, careers in natural resources, and even fly tying! Go to mntu.org/trout-in-the-classroom/

MinnAqua is the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' effort to get fishing into schools and youth groups. The program can help teachers and leaders develop or improve education programs that promote fishing recreation and aquatic conservation.

The MinnAqua leader’s guide has 39 detailed, illustrated lessons and activities to help you introduce kids to fishing and address academic standards with relevant, interdisciplinary and fun ways to learn! You can also download full curriculum or lessons . Go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/minnaqua/ or contact Jeff Ledermann at Jeff.Ledermann@state.mn.us.

Related Topics: NORTHLAND OUTDOORS
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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