Dick Hohenstein, toting a plastic bag of tackle and brimming with optimism, was ready to fish.
“You have to think big,” said the 82-year-old Hohenstein, of Stillwater, threading a squirming worm on his hook before dropping bait, line and sinker into the St. Croix River the other day. The retired Marine veteran is an avid angler who worked the night shift at a Chrysler plant in Ohio, allowing him to fish during the day.
“I used to fish three or four times a week,” he said.
That was before he retired more than 20 years ago. It’s tougher for Hohenstein to get out on the water these days. But four times this summer he has fished the St. Croix River on a pontoon boat operated by the St. Croix Valley chapter of Let’s Go Fishing, a nonprofit Minnesota group that takes mostly seniors — but also veterans, disabled people and youths — out on the water.
Volunteers with 30 chapters will give excursions to about 20,000 people this year. And since the organization was founded in 2002, more than 110,000 people have enjoyed on-the-water adventures.
“It’s wonderful,” said Barb Welp, 77, who fished with her husband, George, 83, on the recent St. Croix River trip. The couple live in St. Paul and were on their first Let’s Go Fishing excursion.
“Whenever I’m out on the water, it’s good,” said George Welp, a Korean War veteran.
The success of Let’s Go Fishing is dependent on unpaid volunteers. On this day, Wayne Beyer, 69, of Bayport piloted the 25-foot pontoon on a sparkling blue St. Croix. Assisting was Pat Bailey, 64, of Woodbury, who also captains the boat.
“I don’t bait hooks or take fish off, but I do everything else,” she joked.
The organization provides life jackets, fishing gear and bait, and the excursions are free. (Donations are accepted.)
“We’re going after sunfish and crappies,” Beyer told the group. “We have a secret hole where we’ve had good luck.”
One man’s dream
Joe Holm, 53, launched Let’s Go Fishing in Willmar a dozen years ago, never thinking it would grow as it has. Holm, who worked in the life insurance and financial services industry, said a string of family health issues, including injuries he suffered from an ATV crash, made him think about life and what he might do with his next chapter.
“You want it to be significant,” he said.
Why not get more people outside on the water?
“You can’t have a bad day when you’re in the outdoors,” Holm said. “I know the older we get, the fewer activities there are to enjoy. We can’t do things we were passionate about, like getting on the water.”
“I just wanted to put a smile on someone’s face,” he said. Let’s Go Fishing has done more than that, he said. “It’s making an impact on people’s lives.”
Said Holm: “That first week, I was out with a fellow and we were catching fish after fish. All of a sudden his head went down and he was weeping. I asked if he was OK. He said, ‘My wife died four months ago, and this is exactly what I needed.’ ”
Word about the program spread, and soon chapters from Detroit Lakes to Winona formed. The chapters use donations, sponsorships (usually in the form of advertisements on the boats) and fundraisers to buy and operate their boats and pay insurance.
Often, local businesses provide services or deals to help keep costs down. Bayport Marina, for example, gives the St. Croix Valley chapter a boat slip, saving the group thousands of dollars.
Holm and one other person are the only paid employees. They and about 2,200 volunteers keep the organization afloat.
“We always need more volunteers,” Pat Bailey said of the St. Croix chapter.
The group is hamstrung now, without funds to hire more people to help the organization grow, Holm said. He has identified 17 additional communities that could operate Let’s Go Fishing boats.
“We’re geared up to impact 25,000 people per year; I’d like that to be 100,000 people per year,” Holm said.
Dave Csanda, president of the Brainerd Lakes chapter, has seen firsthand how popular Let’s Go Fishing has become. His chapter, now in its fifth season, holds a drawing each spring for 30 area senior facilities to select dates for boat trips from May through September.
The competition is intense.
“We will book most of our season by late April,” said Csanda, one of 70 volunteers. “We leave some open slots for churches, senior centers or service clubs.”
Their pontoon boat is on the water at least twice a day five days a week during the summer, taking up to about 10 people on each trip.
“Most of them wouldn’t have an opportunity to do this if we didn’t have the program,” Csanda said. “You see the look on their faces and how much fun they are having. It’s very rewarding.
“It’s a way to give back to the people who helped build the community.”
Fun — fish or no fish
Back on the St. Croix, the fishing action was slow, but the smiles were frequent. The group saw an osprey dive into the water, a hen mallard paddle nearby, and egrets and cranes feed along the shore on a warm, sun-splashed morning.
Hohenstein boated a small rock bass, the only fish caught.
“It was good,” Hohenstein said of the two-hour outing. “I enjoy getting out. Too bad the fish didn’t bite.”