DNR Outdoor Skills Academy offers great opportunities for hunters and anglers to learn from the experts

State park interpreter Kevin Perry, left, works with a participant at a steelhead fishing clinic

Feb. 18, 2016

Imagine you’re interested in taking up golf and have the chance to get out on the links for some pointers from Tiger Woods.

In a similar fashion, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is offering an opportunity that comes close. Those who want to learn more about fishing and hunting can link up with expert instructors at the DNR’s Outdoor Skills Academy.

“It’s like Michael Jordan coming to help us teach basketball,” said DNR park interpreter and academy director Ed Shaw. “These guys are the Michael Jordans of the fishing world.”

On an ice-covered lake, under a blue winter sky, state park interpreter John Zakrajsek helps an academy ice fishing seminar participant.Shaw runs the academy out of the Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center at Mitchell State Park in Cadillac. Instructors include seven seasonal interpreters and seven pros, with the list continuing to grow.

Shaw has enlisted pro staff from fishing gear companies like Fish Bones Custom Lures, Clam Outdoors, Vexilar and HT Enterprises, who team up with DNR instructors to present hands-on clinics for newbies and experienced anglers and hunters who want to brush up on their skills.

“They’re professionals who know how to teach this stuff,” Shaw said. “It’s pretty cool to have a staff of experts. I’ve learned a lot from them.”

The first Outdoor Skills Academy professional was Steve Berry, former fishing charter captain and member of the pro staff for several fishing equipment companies.

Berry said he started out by helping with a kids’ ice fishing clinic at the Hunt and Fish Center. He enjoyed it and liked Shaw’s programs and future vision for the academy.

“It’s not just children but adults who want to learn how to do these things,” said Berry, who has more than 30 years of Michigan walleye fishing experience. “I’ve been living the outdoor life my whole life. I’m able to help out not only with my knowledge but with products.”

Because of his relationship with companies like Clam Outdoors and Vexilar, which both have donated equipment for programs, Berry can bring the gear that helps make these classes possible.

In fact, support from dozens of sponsors and partners helps keep the Outdoor Skills Academy running.

Shaw said that while many people in the outdoor industry know about the academy and "peopleAcademy director Ed Shaw stands near the shore of a river instructing a student. are coming out of the woodwork wanting to sponsor us," there are many hunters and anglers who still don’t know about it.

Some of the pro staffers said the same thing.

Berry grew up in the Grand Rapids area and didn’t know about the Hunt and Fish Center until recently.

“A lot of outdoor folks don’t even know it’s there,” Berry said. “A lot of people don’t know that the DNR isn’t just a law enforcement or state park agency, but is also there to teach people outdoor skills.”

Norm Smith, an Outdoor Skills Academy pro staffer who is also on the pro staff at HT Enterprises, said he too wants to get the word out about programs like the academy’s that help get people involved in outdoor recreation.

“We’re interested in helping people learn what we’ve learned over the years,” Smith said.

Smith has won many fishing tournaments and uses a technique called “tight-lining” that tends to pique people’s curiosity. Smith said tight-liners do well in tournaments and catch a lot of fish.

“People want to learn about it,” he said.

One big reason Smith got involved at the academy is his interest in “getting kids and more women out on the ice.” That includes his wife, Teri, now in her second year of ice fishing.

“We always cater to children when we’re out fishing, and often give them a pole to help keep their interest,” Berry said.

Two pro instructors, Steve Berry, left, and Matt Peterson give a presentation.Fellow academy pro staffer, and Fish Bones Custom Lures owner, Matt Peterson agreed.

“We love the opportunity to teach older people our techniques and tricks, but most of all it’s about getting kids out and showing them how easy it is if you have the right equipment,” Peterson said. “Get them off these Xboxes and out in the field.”

In addition to the expertise of the academy pro staff, the DNR’s own instructors bring considerable knowledge to the table.

“I give my staff a lot of credit. Without them, the academy wouldn’t have happened,” said Shaw, who cited park interpreter and instructor Kevin Perry as an example. “Kevin knows the Manistee River as well as anybody. He can teach people what he’s learned in living here and fishing here for 30 years.”

DNR wildlife biologists and conservation officers are also part of the team that teaches students skills needed for outdoor pursuits like bear hunting.

The Hunt and Fish Center had been offering classes on outdoor activities for several years. However, in 2014, Shaw and his staff – including Kevin Perry, John Zakrajsek, Chuck Fales, Dennis Hewitt and Ed Cieslinski – originated the academy.

More than 150 students – many of them new to hunting for bears – attended the academy’s most recent bear hunting clinics in August, the same month the academy held its opening ribbon-cutting ceremony.

One of those students, Eric Lardi, ended up shooting a bear weighing over 300 pounds during a subsequent bear hunt in Canada.

Lardi called the bear hunting clinic “an excellent introduction to hunting for my grandkids.”

“The guides in Canada reinforced everything said and I would not change the class,” Lardi said. “The conservation officer’s experience was invaluable to us, as to bear behavior and what to expect.”

Roger Kremers, a hunter and angler from Rapid River who also attended the bear hunting clinic, said heIn a red coat and blue hat, a young girl holds up a fish she caught from an ice-covered lake. considers his day in the class well spent, even though he didn’t harvest a bear last fall.

Kremers said he learned a lot.

“Very good information from the biologist,” Kremers said. “He explained very well how the bear population is managed, how (the) DNR determines the allotment of licenses, et cetera.”

He said he also enjoyed the information provided by a DNR conservation officer who explained how to take care of a bear quickly following a successful hunt and what to do with the bear hide.

Shaw said the Outdoor Skills Academy’s unique brand of instruction is bringing people from around the state to Wexford County to attend classes. In turn, the academy provides a boost to the local economy.

The academy’s most recent Hard Water School – an ice fishing clinic held in early January – was filled to capacity, with about half of the participants driving to Cadillac from locations as far away as Farmington Hills, which is just about 200 miles away in Oakland County.

“People are travelling in from other parts of the state for classes, spending $400 or $500,” Shaw said. “We’re putting heads in beds – people attending our programs are customers at local hotels, restaurants and gas stations.”

The next scheduled programs at the Outdoor Skills Academy are its ice fishing seminar – including a youth seminar and fishing contest – March 5 (registration deadline is Feb. 28) and its second Hard Water School of the year March 12.

Other upcoming classes include steelhead clinics April 2 and 9 and June 25, an open-water walleye clinic April 16, a turkey hunting class April 23, a beginners fly fishing clinic May 21, a beginners bass fishing clinic June 5 and bear hunting courses July 30 and Aug. 7 and 13.

Peterson, who is also a duck and goose hunting guide, said a late-summer waterfowl clinic is in the works as well.

Students who take five Outdoor Skills Academy classes get a graduation certificate and their name listed on the academy website. There is no age limit for the class, but Shaw recommends students be at least 8 years old.

There is a cost for most of the classes ranging between $25 and $40; others are free.

To learn more about the Outdoor Skills Academy or register for a class, visit www.michigan.gov/outdoorskills.

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