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Newbies experience ice fishing most can't afford

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Alissa Hoplin, standing next to mom Alisson Hoplin (far right), reacts to fish caught by Tales Miguel (left) and Roger Hoplin II Sunday during a Big Fish and Fry event in front of Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video2 / 2

The red pop-up fish houses lining the lake's edge near Cragun's Resort were hard to miss over the weekend.

The fish, under a thick layer of ice, were also not hard to miss for those angling from inside the shelters. That's because each house was equipped with underwater cameras and the latest in fishing sonar.

From Lulin Zhang's view, he could see perch swimming in and out of view almost constantly. For a moment Lulin watched as his bobber dipped under the water. He gave an upward jerk and pulled the hook from the fish's mouth.

"I missed, I missed!" Lulin repeated to his fellow anglers, including Blake Hoplin, his brother Andrew and their grandpa Roger Hoplin. "Come back, come back!"

It was a plea that was shouted over and over by the anglers within their warm shelters. Each time followed by laughter of the others peering at their bobbers. With each miss or successful hook, these first-time anglers were getting a little better.

It was the first time ice angling for most out on the ice that day. Lulin, a foreign exchange student from China, had heard of others ice fishing back home but never had the opportunity to go. Roger, a Vietnam veteran from Pine River, said it was later in life before he had a chance to ice fish, but never like this. Many others shared a similar story.

"What a great opportunity to teach kids how to fish," Roger said. "I don't have this kind of equipment to show you what's going on."

This opportunity for first-time ice anglers to not just fish, but use all new equipment and receive one-on-one guidance from seasoned anglers was brought to the area by Big Fish and Fry co-founders Pat Walrath and Matt Wilkie. They started the program to introduce the next generations of anglers to the sport and share the respect they have for the outdoors. The program offers day outings across the state as well as night trips to Red Lake and Mille Lacs Lake. At this time, it's all paid for out of pocket by the organizers. They hope to raise funds to help defray some of the costs involved.

This particular outing was the third weekend they are putting on the program in its first year across the state. Next weekend, they plan on going to Grand Rapids.

Wilkie said about 100 people came out Saturday to try to fish as well as a good crowd Sunday. Participants were given some pointers then allowed to sit in the shelters and relax with their family and friends trying out their new skills. Most anglers caught perch, while some northern pike were brought in on tip-ups.

Wilkie grew up in St. Paul and never fished until he was 20 years old. Walrath fished as a youngster but knows that many don't have the ability to make it happen. Wilkie said their goal is to reach as many anglers as possible.

"Hopefully it builds tradition for them to keep doing it for years to come," Wilkie said. "If we can keep up the fundraising, we'd like to do this every year. Every weekend throughout the ice fishing season go to a different lake."

Wilkie owns Dive Guys, which is a diving company operated out of the Twin Cities and Brainerd that pulls lake weeds for property owners.

Walrath was enjoying the outing as it allows him to relive his childhood each time he sees a first-time angler pull up a fish. It's a reminder of how important this activity was to him.

"That's how everybody grew up, that's how I grew up, everybody grows up ice fishing and everybody grows up on the lake catching bass off the shore—that's not the truth," Walrath said. "So this is about being able to pass that along."

Their first outing was on Lake Calhoun with temperatures at 20 below. On Gull Lake, anglers enjoyed 35 degree weather and for some there, they walked on frozen water for the first time in their lives.

According to the Big Fish and Fry website, they promote the sport of ice fishing to Minnesota youth who may not be aware or able to afford partaking in the activity. The goal is to leave a lasting impression and inspire children to remain involved in the sport as they grow older. Secondly, they hope to provide this opportunity for veterans to ice fish and show them gratitude for their service.

Find out more information about the program, the scheduled trips and how to register at www.Bigfishandfry.com or by calling 651-528-6600.

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