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Vickroy: Fishing club members forge new experiences — on ice

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Updated: March 20, 2014 6:25AM



Like polar explorers, the teenagers came for the adventure. And like good fishermen, they left with stories to tell.

Thirty-five students, including several from Tinley Park and Orland Park, participated in the Thundering Eagle Ice Fishing Derby, believed to be the first high school ice fishing tournament for bass club members in Illinois.

The teens braved frigid temperatures as they dangled lines in ice cold water Sunday on frozen Crystal Lake.

Some set up camp on the west bank, others in a central area where the tops of underwater fir trees jutted just above the ice line. Their goal: to snag some game fish and, if they were really lucky, some panfish that could be fileted and grilled for lunch.

“This is exciting,” said Meghan Kline, a senior at Andrew High School in Tinley Park. Not only was it her first time fishing, it was her first time walking across a frozen lake.

Under bright sunshine in the far northwest suburbs, instructors used augers to drill holes in the
18-inch thick ice so students could jig for pike, walleye and bass.

Despite their best efforts, the only fish to be hooked that day were panfish — crappie, bluegill and sunfish — and not enough to sustain a meal.

“It’s OK, we’ve got about a hundred chicken wings on the bus, just in case,” said Tara O’Connor, 17, from Tinley Park.

“Even though the kids caught few fish, they had a great time,” said John Bartgen, who organized the event with Jim Corcoran. Both are District 230 bass fishing club coaches.

Bass fishing clubs typically sit out the winter. But one day while they were ice fishing, Bartgen and Corcoran hatched a plan to introduce ice fishing to their students. They enlisted the aid of other District 230 coaches, including Scott Plaisier and Bill Scott.

“For a lot of these kids, this is their first time ever on the ice,” said Bartgen, who teaches social studies and runs the club at Andrew. “We wanted to give them a cool experience.”

“We’re introducing the kids to something new and hoping to build a lifelong hobby,” said Corcoran, who teaches science and heads the Sandburg fishing club.

The south suburban kids were joined by teens from Wauconda and Johnsburg high schools. The groups were scattered across the ice, sharing space and hope with many local fishermen.

The day began with a safety lesson. Each participant also was given a set of ice picks that could be used to help dig out if they happened to fall through the ice, an unlikely event on this day, considering the thickness of the ice but a good precaution nonetheless.

The students were told they could jig for fish or use a tip-up, a stand-alone device that flips up a flag when a fish bites on the line.

“It’s my first time ice fishing,” said Joe Dennis, who was sitting on a bucket, tapping his line.

The sophomore at Andrew said, despite his big burly navy blue Bears hat, “It’s pretty cold out here, but this is cool.”

Although Ben Vonderheide, 16, fishes every summer in Minnesota with his grandparents, “It’s nice to be with friends,” he said.

Joe Skvarla wasn’t bothered one bit by the frigid temperature.

“I’m accustomed to the cold,” the Andrew fisherman said. “I go snowmobiling in Michigan all the time.”

Tara said the Andrew kids set up around the tree tops because they know trees create oxygen and that attracts fish.

“Plus, the fish like the trees, they like the protection they provide,” she said.

“I’ve learned a lot in this club,” she said, even though she joined as a senior.

Throughout the year, bass fishing club members learn about lures, rods and reels, as well as how to cast, how to identify a good location and how to be good stewards of the earth.

“You also learn patience, too,” Tara said. “Today, we’re out here just chilling, literally.”

Sure, each club wants to win the derbies and tournaments it enters, but, Corcoran said, the larger purpose is to instill an appreciation for the environment and the animals that call lakes and rivers home. Per Department of Natural Resources rules, fish that are caught during tournaments are weighed, measured and released back into the wild.

On this day, Wauconda High School won top honors with 1.77 pounds of panfish ­— an unusually light haul for the anglers, but enough to start a tradition, Bartgen said.

“We will continue to cohost this tournament with Sandburg for years to come,” Bartgen said.

Meanwhile, they’ve got their eyes cast toward a spring tournament series on the Des Plaines River.



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