Young artists lured toward fish-head ornament idea

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 26, 2012 - 5:35 PM

A high school class in Verndale is learning about business by making and selling fish-head Christmas ornaments. And it can't keep up with the demand.

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Students at Verndale Public School work on making plastic fish-head Christmas ornaments. Pictured are, from left to right: Zach Johnson 9th grade, of Verndale, Colter Ehrmantraut, 10th grade, of Wadena, Anthony Kern, 10th grade, of Verndale, and Brian Bertram, 12th grade, of Verndale.

Photo: Matt Parker, Submitted photo

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There's fish soup, fish houses and fish finders -- so why not fish-head Christmas ornaments in fish-crazed Minnesota?

"Everyone likes them -- they're easy to sell,'' said Colter Ehrmantraut, 15, a sophomore at tiny Verndale High School southeast of Wadena in north-central Minnesota.

He and his classmates are making and selling the unique ornaments as part of an applied economics class, the brainchild of instructor Matt Parker, an avid angler and lure-maker.

The six teenage boys in the class use plastic resin and silicone molds to produce the colorful fish-head ornaments, dripping with clear-coat icicles.

"They're a lot of fun to make,'' Ehrmantraut said. "Each is one-of-a-kind.''

But it's more than fun.

"We're basically learning how to run a small business,'' freshman Zach Johnson, 14, said. "We're learning about marketing, manufacturing and selling. It's been exciting.''

Math, physics and economics also come into play, said Parker, who instructs the kids along with social studies teacher Sam Schmitz.

"My goal is to tie this into all of their classes -- we're making school more relevant for them,'' said Parker, 32, a speech pathologist who channeled his own interest in making fishing lures to start a lure-making club last year. He formed a class this semester.

The students are selling the fish ornaments for $5 apiece -- and they can't make enough.

"We've already sold 145 of them,'' Parker said. "We're selling them faster than we can make them. We're not taking any more orders for this season.''

And the students are learning about financial rewards: Their sales will pay for a fishing trip to Lake of the Woods next year.

"We're calling it 'experiencing profit-sharing,''' Parker said.

The youths plan to make plastic lures next semester to take on their fishing trip.

Parker doesn't take all the credit for the success of the class. The fish-head Christmas ornament idea came from Larry Dahlberg of Taylors Falls, host of "The Hunt for Big Fish" on the Versus Network and a member of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

"I've been making lures since I was a little kid,'' Dahlberg said.

Dahlberg has teamed up with the Alumilite Corp. in Michigan to promote lure-building with the company's plastic resins. Parker saw a TV show Dahlberg did on lure-making and was intrigued.

"My wife got me a kit for Christmas last year,'' Parker said. He immediately saw possibilities for the classroom and contacted Mike Faupel, owner of the company. Faupel has given the school discounted supplies, and Dahlberg has offered valuable advice.

The students pour in a precise mixture of liquid plastic and coloring into the molds to produce the rock-hard fish heads and lures.

"Many lures can be built for pennies on the dollar,'' said Dahlberg, 63. Piquing the kid's interest in manufacturing might lead to careers, he said.

"Who knows, maybe one will manufacture a heart valve that will allow me to fish for another 30 years,'' he quipped.

Said Parker: "The students now have some real-life experience in what it takes to run a business.''

Currently, school district dollars pay for the materials used in the class, but Parker is hoping to make it self-sustaining.

"We'd like to manufacture things that catch fish, so we can sell them,'' Parker said. And the students will ramp up production next fall of the fish ornaments. "I think we can sell as many as we can make,'' he said.

He said the class already has created a buzz in the small school, which will graduate 33 students next spring. He expects a larger class next year. He's also hoping he and his students can visit Dahlberg's workshop to get more tips.

Which is yet another lesson: "I tell them if you ask smart people smart things you get really good answers,'' Parker said.

Meanwhile, his students will give a presentation on their efforts at the next school board meeting. "English and speech,'' Parker said.

His enthusiasm also might be a lesson.

"If you believe in what you're doing, it's easy to sell it,'' he said. "And I believe in what we're doing.''

Doug Smith•dsmith@ startribune.com Twitter: @dougsmithstrib

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