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Seniors find more than fish in this program

An old pair of hands, maybe not as quick as they once were, certainly not as smooth, grasps a fishing line. The hands might ache with pain or struggle with a slight tremor picked up over the years, but the fingertips still know how to delicately slip a waxworm onto a fish hook.

These hands may not have been on a boat for 20 years, but the fishing know-how comes flooding back. Somehow, it never left. Scenes like this, of muscle memory and fond reminiscence, are a part of every Let’s Go Fishing trip on Cedar Lake in New Prague.

“It’s about the experience of being back on the lake; folks haven’t been on the lake for 20-30 years,” said Jenna Tuma, LGF Scott County chapter president. “The stories that you hear are sometimes a little sad, they didn’t think they were ever going to get out to go fishing again... it’s those memories that drives the interest.”

Let’s Go Fishing is a nonprofit organization that takes seniors, veterans and disabled people on free fishing trips throughout the summer. The Scott County Area Chapter was established in 2015 by President Jenna Tuma when she was a park operations supervisor for Three Rivers Park District. At the time, Tuma was trying to develop youth fishing programs and discovered Let’s Go Fishing was providing valuable outdoor experiences to a population that is often underserved by parks and recreation.

“Aging seniors are really challenging to offer programs for because of the weather, bathrooms, transportation, lack of mobility,” Tuma said. “This program touched the heart and is really impactful to seniors that don’t have the opportunity to get outdoors.”

Most LGF chapters are based around a single city and use public boat landings, but Tuma wanted to make Cedar Lake Farm Regional Park in New Prague the regional chapter’s base of operations, since the park was undergoing development at the time. Tuma was able to broker a special use agreement with Scott County and Three Rivers Park District to host the LGF boat and a golf cart at the park.

Tuma put together a board to run the organization and the chapter soon faced $48,000 in start-up costs for equipment, which included a 28-foot, triple-hull pontoon boat. Soon after they took out a loan, organizations like local Lions clubs, sportsman clubs and Allina Health began contributing to the loan payments.

“We knew people in the community that trusted what we were trying to do... after the first and second year it became a really easy sale to go back and ask for money because all the funds go 100 percent to the program,” Tuma said. “Anything that’s given is given back and that’s the way we’re able to keep the program at no cost to the participant.”

The Scott County chapter has 110 volunteers registered, with about 60 active volunteers, Tuma said. Each trip is facilitated by two volunteers, a captain and first mate. Tuma said many of the volunteers are retirees with time on their hands who want to give back.

Two of them, Terry Theisen and Darryl Robert, are former coworkers turned fishing buddies. Theisen has volunteered for five years.

“I remember one time going out with a man who was mentally challenged,” Theisen said. “He caught a crappie and was scared of it at first; he didn’t want to touch it. Eventually he touched it and got this big smile. Then he pulled it to his face and kissed it. That’s the kind of stuff that makes this worth it.”

The trips may be centered around fishing, but for many, the trip is just as much about camaraderie. Theisen remembers taking a 100-year-old man out on the lake one of the first times he volunteered.

“He didn’t want to fish, he just wanted to sit and enjoy the day,” Theisen said.

Most trips are organized by a senior living facility or organization, but some trips are made up of seniors who register themselves. Sometimes, those trips are the most special. Once the guide drops anchor and the bobbers hit the water, the strangers begin talking like old pals. The conversation drifts from military service stories to what types of fish taste better than others.

Guests share the quirks of old fisherman they used to spend time with on the lake, like a grandfather who always spit snuff on his bait or a fella whose family made a dictionary of his commonly mispronounced words.

It all feels increasingly unique to older generations — an instant familiarity lost on younger people, often attached to cell phones. Out on the lake, there’s none of that — it’s just the water, a worm, a fishing pole and the company.

“We tell them it’s about fishing, that’s what gets them hooked,” Tuma said. “But really it’s about getting them out there to enjoy the day, get the sun in their face, the fresh lake smell and feel the wiggle of the worm between their fingers. They just crave for that.”

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