Now that we’ve reached the month of April, trees are sprouting green buds, weather is warming up, and lakes in Southwest Iowa are thawing out and ready for fishing.
Over 100 students in third through twelfth grade across the region are heading to the lakes for peak fishing season with the Southwest Iowa Fishing Team. This local nonprofit’s mission is to promote, advance, and sponsor amateur fishing for youth across Southwest Iowa. The primary initiatives of the group are to instill the ideals of sportsmanship, diversity, equity, and inclusion through special educational workshops, mentoring, and community outreach. Student anglers can participate through online fishing, as well as kayak and boat tournaments.
After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, during the peak time of social distancing, fishing became an important escape for many families. In 2020, Southwest Iowa Fishing Team Founder Bob Harris also saw fishing as an opportunity for his grandchildren and their friends.
“All activities were being cancelled, and my grand kids loved to fish at our little farm pond,” Harris said. “I decided I needed to tap into their passion for fishing, so I found an online fishing tournament for my two grandsons to participate in. Before that, I hadn’t realized there were so many opportunities for competitive fishing. That first tournament got us hooked.”
In September of 2020, Harris proposed the idea of a fishing team to a small group of students. There was an enthusiastic response, and the fishing team had their first tournament at Hacklebarney Lake, near Villisca, Iowa. Sixteen students participated. The entire team caught a total of five fish. The biggest fish weighed one pound.
Today, the Southwest Iowa Fishing Team consists of over 100 student anglers from a dozen different schools. In the past year, the team caught a combined total of 663 pounds of fish in boat tournaments, 13,137 inches in virtual and kayak series, and 2,208 fish overall.
Sixty percent of students who participate on fishing teams are not involved with traditional high school sports. This extracurricular activity provides students with an opportunity to participate in a sport outside of school, with the potential to earn scholarships to advance their education.
“Fishing is fun, but we also had to teach these students how to help the fisheries,” Harris said. “We needed to teach them what good conservation looks like, and how to take care of these bodies of water. I am very proud of the fact that we have worked closely with the Iowa DNR to educate our students and give back to the communities where we fish.”
The rise in popularity of fishing after 2020 resulted in a strain on the aquatic life in lakes across Southwest Iowa. The Southwest Iowa Fishing Team turned to grant funding to restore and replenish the deteriorating habitats in these lakes. Like all animals, fish need a healthy living habitat to survive, grow, and reproduce.
The Southwest Iowa Fishing Team received a total of $27,050 in grants throughout 2021 from six out of nine counties that make up the Community Foundations of Southwest Iowa, including Cass, Crawford, Fremont, Harrison, Montgomery, and Shelby. These grants were provided to support the purchase and placement of artificial fish habitats into lakes across the region.
Students were involved in every phase of the conservation efforts, including designing the fish habitats, building the structures, and placing them in bodies of water. After a structure is placed into a lake, the fish habitat provides a space for fish to nest, feed, and seek shelter. After eighteen months, the structure becomes a complete living habitat. The quality and quantity of fish habitats in a body of water directly affects fish populations. Since 2021, over 350 fish habitats have been placed in lakes across Southwest Iowa.
Moving forward, the Southwest Iowa Fishing Team is hoping to expand into more metro and rural areas across the region. Currently, the organization is fully led by volunteers, and operates on generous corporate sponsorships and donations. If you or someone you know is interested in supporting the Southwest Iowa Fishing Team, the group is currently looking for volunteers to help develop a new website or coordinate social media content. Other volunteers are also always welcome. You can contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org.