Salmon in The Classroom Students Enjoy on the Water Fishing Lesson

Carsie Walker of Douglas Elementary schools shows off his first Great Lakes salmon.

One of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment's most successful natural resources education programs for youngsters is Salmon in the Classroom. It's a year-long program in which teachers receive fertilized salmon eggs from a DNRE fish hatchery, hatch them out, feed and raise the fry through spring, and then release the young salmon into a local river.

The program teaches youngster about everything from the life history of fish to the importance of the Great Lakes and fishing to Michigan's culture. There's a whole curriculum that goes with it.

But recently, a group of concerned West Michigan salmon fishing enthusiasts thought that something was missing from the program: a hands-on opportunity to see what fishing is all about.

Thanks to the Saugatuck-Holland Area Charter Boat Association, more than 70 fifth graders from Douglas Elementary School went out fishing in Lake Michigan on 20 boats as part of the DNRE's Salmon in the Classroom program

The Saugatuck-Holland Area Charter Boat Association asked teachers in the Salmon in the Classroom program at Douglas Elementary School if they could arrange a field trip for the fifth graders in the program to take them fishing on Lake Michigan. And once, the ball got rolling, it couldn't be stopped.

So on a recent windy May morning, more than 70 fifth graders spent the morning on big-lake boats, trolling Lake Michigan waters for salmon. Despite some moderately obstinate weather, the event was a huge success. Numerous youngsters not only enjoyed their first fishing outing, many of them caught their first fish.

Dave Engel, a well-known charter boat skipper out of Saugatuck, said his group has been sponsoring the local Salmon in the Classroom program, by providing the funding for the aquariums and water chillers, for the last several years. The idea of a field trip came up at an association meeting, the group proposed it to teacher Jacque Groenendyk, who began the program at Douglas Elementary, and the idea of a fishing trip took hold.

Groenendyk presented the idea to the principal and the school board. Both went all in.

"The school board backed us 100 percent," said Teya Lober, principal at Douglas Elementary. "We had total community support -- 20 people offering up their boats free of charge. It's amazing."

Not all the boats were charter boats. Some private boat owners picked up the challenge and offered their boats, too.

Thanks to the Saugatuck Holland Area Charter Boat Association, more than 70 fifth graders from Douglas Elementary School went out fishing in Lake Michigan on 20 boats as part of the DNRE's Salmon in the Classroom program

"It took a little work, but everybody chipped in, the sportsmen of Saugatuck as well as the charter boats," Engel said. "It went real well."

The boats left the port at around 7 a.m., each with three to five youngsters aboard. The game plan was for all of them to be back in by noon for a picnic including a fish fry.

A good time was had by all.

"It's so cool," said 11-year-old Taylor Castillo, who was one of the first on her boat to reel in a salmon. "I think it's a great experience for us to learn about salmon."

Castillo said she never thought she'd be one of the people out catching fish, "but I definitely wanted to try it."

Brett Baker of Grand Rapids,first mate on the boat Chuck Wagon, holds up Kathryn Shanahan's salmon

So did her classmate. 11-year-old Brenda Bekins, who caught a 13 1/2-pound Chinook salmon - tied for the biggest fish of the day. Bekins had never been fishing before.

"I can't believe I caught a 30-inch salmon on my first fishing trip," she said. "My first trip! Great fishing!"

Groenendyk , who said the event was "just phenomenal," said her efforts -- taking the idea to the school board, getting permission slips signed by parents and arranging to get all those 11-year-olds to the dock by 6:45 a.m. -- paled in comparison to the work by the charter boat association.

"I think the guys had the bigger job," she said. "To rent a charter boat for a half day isn't pocket change. It's phenomenal."

The Salmon in the Classroom program has been around for almost 15 years, but it's only in the last several that the momentum has really built. This past year, 116 schools -- involving youngsters from third grade through high school -- participated in the program. DNRE outreach specialist Shana McMillan, who works out of Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery -- where most of the classrooms get their salmon eggs -- says 27 additional schools have signed up for the 2010-11 school year.

For his part, Engel said he hopes what was accomplished in the Saugatuck-Douglas School District this year will spread around the state, to give youngsters the full flavor of what the salmon program means to Michigan.

It obviously meant a lot to the folks at Douglas Elementary.

Brett Baker, Kathryn Shanahan, Kayla Brown, captain Jeff Cottrell and Carsie Walker, left to right,  show off a part of the morning's catch aboard the Chuck Wagon

"They did great," Lober said. "The guys said the kids were well behaved. We'd like to see this become a regular part of the program. "I think that's going to happen."

For more information on the Salmon in the Classroom program, visit the DNRE website at

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