Maryama Hassan was about 10 minutes into her first ice fishing experience when she reached a discouraging conclusion.
“There are no fish here,” the 7th grader pronounced, pointing with authority to the opposite side of Como Lake. “They’re all over there.”
Just then, Karl Erickson arrived and knelt down next to the hole in the ice. He delivered two important lessons.
The first: “Fishing is 99% being patient.” The second was on how to interpret various lights on the display panel of a sonar fish finder.
“See that red line?” he asked. “That’s a fish.” Then he pointed out a second fish that was approaching the artificial bait being dangled just a few feet away by classmate Asli Ali. The youngsters’ exasperation was immediately replaced with anticipation.
Neither fish took the bait, but this isn’t a clichéd fish story about the big one that got away. Instead, it’s about the ones that Erickson has reeled in.
Over the last five winters, he estimates that he has introduced more than 1,100 kids to ice fishing by working with schools, community groups and veterans’ family organizations (he served two tours in Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard).
That number includes every student at Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul, where he is a physical education teacher. Starting in January, he has taken the students on fishing excursions, which is how Hassan, Ali and a cadre of their fellow 7th-graders ended up spending a February morning sitting on upside-down plastic pails while intently staring down holes cut into the ice.
“For most of these kids, this is the first time they’ve ever been ice fishing,” Erickson said.
He begins every session by addressing any concerns a newcomer might have.
“I’ve been out on the ice and checked it,” Erickson said. “It’s thick enough to hold a car, and we’re just walking on it.” He makes a safety briefing — “Keep hooks down the hole!" — and then segues into an overview of the sport (for this group, at least, the demonstration of the gas-powered ice auger was particularly captivating).
Not every person ends up catching a fish — that’s another lesson — but when one is pulled up, Erickson takes a picture to commemorate the achievement before releasing the fish back into the water.
He isn’t overly worried about the novices’ technique. More important is sharing his enthusiasm for fishing.
“I think the kids can sense that, they pick up on it,” he said of his passion.
Erickson, 35, was introduced to ice fishing much younger than these kids. “When I was 4, I caught a fish in a contest that won a prize,” he said. “That’s the story my dad tells, anyway. I don’t remember any of that.”
The outings aren’t just an excuse for the kids to get out of school, said science teacher Kate Johnson, who was accompanying the group.
“We connect this to science,” she said. “We study ecosystems, environments and learn about the food chain.”
This winter, Erickson got a grant under the state’s No Child Left Inside program for his school to buy five pop-up shelters, fish finders and enough gear for 30 kids.
“I was watching the bill go through the legislature,” he said. “I had my application all typed up, and the minute they opened the link to apply, I sent it. We were one of about 60 [groups that got grants] out of more than 400 applicants.”
Having all that equipment is quite a luxury. Things didn’t start out nearly as smoothly. In 2015, he was working as an aide in a Minneapolis school and put up a sign asking if any kids were interested in an ice fishing outing on Lake Harriet. He had enough gear for two kids; 50 signed up.
“I was calling up everyone I knew,” he said, looking to borrow gear. “I was able to rally my friends, and we got all the equipment.”
They went on to launch Urban Ice Anglers (urbaniceanglers.org and @urbaniceanglers), which focuses on “creating equal access to fishing opportunities for those that lack the resources, equipment and fishing experience.”
Erickson hopes that fishing becomes a lifetime activity for the youngsters.
“My dream,” he said, “is that some day, one of these kids will rush up to me to tell me a story about a fish they caught.”