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From hatchery to plate, Grand Isle fishing festival aims to teach kids responsible angling

Kids of all ages stand around a pond. Some hold fishing poles.
Samantha Watson
Vermont Public
Kids of all ages learn how to fish at the Ed Weed Hatchery Pond on June 8.

It’s a drippy Saturday in early June at the Ed Weed Fish Culture Station in Grand Isle — overcast with a little bit of rain.

Dozens of Vermont families — some toting rods and reels — are excitedly milling around the hatchery pond, which has been stocked with 1,500 adult brown and rainbow trout.

Paige Blaker, the fish production supervisor at the hatchery and organizer of this event, says despite the lack of sun, it’s actually a perfect day — for fishing.

“Yeah, overcast skies are actually great,” she said. “The fish tend to see stuff in the water a little bit better.”

And that’s good, because today is all about fishing. Since 2005, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife has hosted the Grand Isle fishing festival. The free event, which had a brief hiatus during the pandemic, is designed to teach kids how to fish in a sustainable way.

The festival, which this year brought out about 600 participants, is held on Vermont’s statewide free fishing day, where anyone can try out fishing without a license.

Blaker says a key component of being a responsible angler starts and ends with the fish itself.

“They have to have an understanding of, 'What is a fish?'” Blaker said. “'What makes up a fish? What other outside factors do they have to struggle with to survive in the wild?'”

Over the course of the day, participants move through a series of stations, each with an exercise or game to teach them about — you guessed it — fish.

Two volunteers under a white tent stand near a fishing pole situated over an open tank of water.
Samantha Watson
Vermont Public
At the "setting the hook" station, volunteers teach participants how catch a fish before reeling it in.

Toddlers just barely toddling and seasoned preteens alike begin at the fish biology station, where they learn some basic anatomy and about fish reproduction, or spawning. Excited participants then pretend to be a fish swimming upstream, dodging volunteers with pool noodles in a predator obstacle course.

Then they move on to an invasive species scavenger hunt, a hooking exercise and a casting lesson. When the kids have made it through, they can pick up their fishing rods and head to the pond to put their skills to the test.

The hatchery has heated up the temperature of the pond water — warmer water makes the fish more active and ready for food.

This is a big part of the festival’s draw — it’s a chance for kids to catch really big fish.

This anticipation makes for high stakes. As families line side by side along the pond, there are fish stories in the making.

Like from 12-year-old Ben Foreman, who described his experience as “exhilarating.”

“As we were reeling it in, it got away,” he said.

At the fish collection and spawning station, kids learn about how the hatchery works
Samantha Watson
Vermont Public
At the fish collection and spawning station, kids learn about how the hatchery works.

For other kids, the shores of the pond become a place to recount tales of the lake — like storied sea captains on a stormy day.

Seven and 8-year-old Nova Jordan and Hailey Bettis stood along the pond, waiting for a catch.

“I cast a fish, the biggest fish, with a sour patch,” said Jordan, referencing the sour gummy candy Sour Patch Kids. “Yeah, it was a green or orange one.”

Those who have caught a fish can take their trout to a fish processing station, where volunteers clean and filet their catch to take home for dinner.

Volunteer Tom Jones mans the fish tasting station. He offers up samples hot off the grill, and has examples of recipes families can use at home with their trout.

“And just amazes me, the people that come up that haven't tried fish, and were like, ‘I don't like fish,’ and all of a sudden take a bite and their eyes light up,” Jones said.

From hatchery to plate, the fishing festival aims to give families a full picture when it comes to responsible and sustainable angling. Organizer Paige Blaker says it all comes back to the fish itself.

“I hope instead of going ‘Eww’ they go ‘Wow,'” she said. “And I hope that this is a day that they remember about how much fun they had. And it happened because fish were involved.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Samantha Watson is Vermont Public's news intern.
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