Free learn-to-fish programs


Family Outings: Free learn-to-fish programs hook kids, parents on the Minnesota pastime

By Maja Beckstrom

Photo by Paula Wojcik "Fishing William O'Brien"


I had enjoyed walleye in a sandwich, but I’d never seen one alive. In fact, I had never been fishing, which made me feel like a poor excuse for a Minnesotan — where one in every four adults buys a fishing license, the highest rate in the nation (tied with Alaska).

Meanwhile, my 7-year-old son had been eyeing his friends’ tackle boxes with envy and begging to go fishing.

But where could we get equipment? Where would we go? Would I need a license? HowFishing William O'Brien do you bait a hook? The unknowns were daunting. Most daunting of all was the question of what I would do if he actually caught a fish?

So, I was relieved when I heard about the MinnAqua family fishing club, a free program for beginners like me run jointly by the Department of Natural Resources and Dakota County Parks.

On a recent Tuesday evening, I took my son and his friend to Thompson Lake in West St. Paul to meet instructor Andre Xiong. When we arrived, a couple of other kids already were leaning over the weathered wood rail on the pier and staring intently down their lines into the water.

“Have you ever been fishing before?” Xiong asked. My son shook his head. “Well, I’m going to help you put on a worm,” he said. Xiong popped open a plastic carryout container and used needle-nose pliers to pull out a fat night crawler. Then, he flipped the worm onto the dock and squeezed off a section. “Do you want to try?” he asked my son, holding out the wiggling flap

My son gingerly took the worm in his hand. Then, he flinched. “Whoa! Whoa! It squirted out some black stuff,” said my son as he frantically handed the worm back and wiped his hands on his shorts. “Ew! Can you do it?” Xiong took it back with good humor and slid it onto the hook.

“The worm is like a sock and your hook is like a foot,” he explained as he worked the worm up the barb. “You just want to slip it on.” Xiong showed my son how to cast and then left him alone while he baited a few more hooks.



The DNR created MinnAqua program in 1989 after becoming concerned that young people were not taking up fishing like the previous generation. While 28 percent of Minnesota adults older than 16 have a fishing license, and that’s down from around 40 percent in the 1970s, and the greatest decline is among those younger than 35, according to C.B. Bylander, outreach chief for fish and wildlife division of the DNR.

The reasons are complex: growing urbanization, an aging population, growing numbers of ethnic minorities who have not traditionally fished and competition from organized leisure activities and video games. “Fishing is still strong in this state,” Bylander said. “But we’re really interested in making sure the next generation has that interest.”

The DNR is doing what it can to lure young families back to fishing. As of July 1, you no longer need a fishing license to fish in any state park. Officials did not think the $17 was a major deterrent for most families, but they wanted to eliminate the inconvenience, especially for people who might want to go fishing for the first time.

The DNR also has started to lend free fishing equipment at a handful of regional and state parks, including, for the first time this year, Fort Snelling State Park and William O’Brien State Park.

But even a free pole isn’t much help if you don’t know how to use it.

MinnAqua tries to tackle that barrier with a fishing curriculum for classroom teachers, park and rec staff and other youth leaders. The lesson plans incorporate games like “food chain tag” and culminate in a fishing field trip.

All of which raises a good question. Why should the state care if people fish?

“It’s tied to something bigger than just fishing. It’s tied to an overall conservation ethic,” said Roland Sigurdson, an aquatic education specialist for the DNR. “If you enjoy angling, then you’ll be interested in water quality, a healthy ecosystem and the things that support that recreational activity.”



Sigurdson’s reasoning makes sense. As we stood on the pier waiting for a fish to bite, we noticed a lot about the natural world around us.

A red-winged blackbird trilled from its perch in nearby cattails. A female mallard paddled past, leaving a perfect “V” wake behind her in the still water. Painted turtles swam out from under the pier to try to snap up our worms.

One boy caught a turtle, and we had to hold its head out from its shell to remove the hook. But no one was catching a fish.

There was one other family at the club that night, along with a few kids Xiong had invited off the playground. One boy pulled up a bunch of weeds. A girl watched a fish pluck the worm off her hook. Another boy caught his finger on a hook.

Meanwhile, my son and his friend stood on a lower board of the pier railing and leaned over the water. I was impressed with their patience.

I was looking the other way when I finally heard my son yell, “I got a fish!”

I turned around to see his red and white bobber under the water. Xiong helped him reel in a 4-inch bluegill, one of the most common fish in Minnesota lakes.

I tried to work the hook loose but was nervous I would hurt the fish. Xiong helped pull the hook out and then handed the fish to my son to gently drop back into the water. All the MinnAqua programs are catch and release.

My son was lucky that night. He caught two more sunfish, a green sunfish and a pumpkinseed.

“I threw it out and thought it was a bad cast,” he said, he said of his last catch. “So, I reeled it back in, and there was a fish on it! It was awesome!”

And that night at the dinner table, he told his father his first fishing story.


Free fishing poles

Several regional and state parks in the metro area lend free fishing poles through the DNR’s Fishing in the Neighborhood program.


Check ahead to see if specific locations sell or provide bait.

East-metro sites include William O’Brien State Park, Fort Snelling State Park, Lake Elmo Park Reserve, St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park, Lebanon Hills Regional Park, Inver Grove Heights Community Center. For a complete list and more details, go to


Remember: If you are older than 16, you will need to purchase a fishing license, unless you are fishing at a state park.


The Department of Natural Resources Web site ( has everything you need to get started, including instructions for beginning anglers, lists of where to purchase bait, how to buy a license, a map of lakes in Minnesota with a fishing pier, local lake descriptions, color pictures of Minnesota fish species and guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health for eating fish from potentially polluted waters.


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