Roger Benson has already had one distinguished career. A social studies teacher as well as the baseball and basketball coach in the Atwater school district (later Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City) for 36 years, Roger retired in 2005. Soon afterwards, he began volunteering for Let’s Go Fishing in Willmar, Minnesota. He may have been looking for something to do with his free time after retirement, but Roger got much more than that. After a busy summer taking seniors out on the lake, Roger was asked by the president of Let’s Go Fishing to take over the Willmar chapter. That was 7 years ago. Since his is a year-round position, Roger spends much of his time fundraising, marketing, writing grants, coordinating volunteers. In the summer months, Roger drives the pontoon, assists with guests, and does whatever is needed to keep the Willmar chapter going so they can keep taking seniors out on the lakes.
Let’s Go Fishing was established in 2002 by Joe Holm in Willmar, Minnesota. Joe had worked in the financial services industry for many years, but, according to the July 2012 issue of Senior Spirit Newsletter, decided to reassess his life priorities and do something to “give back.” Now in its 11th year, Let’s Go Fishing of Minnesota has grown to 30 chapters in Minnesota as well as one chapter in Wisconsin.
The name focuses on fishing, but, as Roger explains, this is a people program. For many reasons, fishing and boating are often activities that seniors lose access to in their later years. Let’s Go Fishing strives to get seniors involved in an activity that they will enjoy and which brings them pleasure and creates positive memories. The mission statement says it all: “enriching the lives of individuals 55 years and greater through fishing and boating excursions that build relationships and create memories.”
The organization works with nursing homes, assisted living facilities and adult day centers, as well as senior clubs and organizations as it puts together its scheduled outings. Often, activity directors plan the trips and sign up those who want to attend. Let’s Go Fishing is also open to working with individuals and small groups. They have extended their outings to include school groups and people with disabilities, as well. This year, they will be taking 200 or more Willmar 4th graders out during the last week of school to learn about water safety.
In order to meet safety requirements, Let’s Go Fishing requires chapters to purchase their own pontoons. Manufacturers have agreed to build pontoons to certain specifications for Let’s Go Fishing. A Let’s Go Fishing pontoon is made just a bit more sturdily than most pontoon boats, with three pontoons, rather than just two. The extra one is under the decking to provide additional stability on the water. Other specifications include individual seating with captain’s chairs, canopies for sun protection, and reinforced rails for the protection of seniors and other groups. These specifications are reviewed and upgraded on a yearly basis. With the pontoon purchase program, Let’s Go Fishing has a program that maintains consistency across the state.
Some of the smaller chapters share pontoons between them. In the northern part of Kandiyohi County, the Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa chapter shares a pontoon with the Paynesville chapter. The chapters decide which dates the pontoon will be available to each chapter. This year, Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa will have the pontoon and can schedule excursions on May 12-25, June 13-26, July 10-27, August 11-24, and September 8-21. Senior groups in the Belgrade, Brooten, or Elrosa areas may reserve the pontoon by calling Betty Braegelman at (320) 254-8215.
The Paynesville Area Chapter of Let’s Go Fishing is planning to have the pontoon on the Chain of Lakes, Rice Lake, Koronis and Long Lake this year. They will have it alternating weeks with the Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa chapter. They have just learned that they have an opportunity to partner with the Women Anglers of Minnesota and use their volunteers for fishing guides on May 28 and 29th. Planning is still being done for special events on those dates. Some highlights from the Paynesville chapter of Let’s Go Fishing in 2012 included an outing with three “100 year old” clients, a family that came all the way from Germany to enjoy Minnesota lakes, and an outing for a nursing home that brought home 74 huge sunfish. They are always looking for volunteers and people who want to go on excursions.
The Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa chapter of Let’s Go Fishing plans to hold their annual “Fish Fry & Silent Auction” fundraiser on Friday, May 3, 2013 from 5-8:30 PM at Brother’s Bar in Belgrade.
The Willmar chapter expects to be finished with its fundraising efforts by the end of April. They are having a Volunteer and Training meeting on May 1st at 6:30 pm in the Dethlef’s Senior Center in Spicer.
Dave Csanda, of the Brainerd Lakes chapter of Let’s Go Fishing, says his chapter has been around for 3 years. This year they will take out about 1200 seniors. They cater heavily to the senior facilities in the area, but also take out some individuals or younger folks. They usually go out on Gull Lake, Rice Lake (actually the Mississippi River above the dam) and Bay Lake, which is located between Brainerd and Lake Mille Lacs. They focus on these moderate sized lakes since it is easier to get out of the wind and bad weather on a smaller lake. To his knowledge, none of the chapters takes seniors out on Lake Mille Lacs. Due to its size, Lake Mille Lacs is less predictable and more prone to bad weather and high winds.
You don’t have to love fishing to go on a Let’s Go Fishing trip or to volunteer. Many of the outings are pleasure cruising rather than fishing. In fact, the Willmar chapter books about fifty percent of their excursions as cruises rather than fishing trips. On a cruising trip, the pontoons are filled. When the trip involves fishing, there are more volunteers and fewer guests – usually at least 2 volunteers in addition to the driver. That way everyone gets help if they need it. Let’s Go Fishing focuses on still fishing, not trolling. The pontoon driver takes the pontoon to a good fishing spot and volunteers assist guests with getting their lines in the water, and with any other help they need. On a Let’s Go Fishing trip, everything is provided for the guests except the fishing license. (Senior residents of certified assisted living facilities and/or nursing homes are not required to have a MN fishing license, nor do Minnesota residents over the age of 90 or youth ages 15 and under need a license.) Included are life vests, rods, reels, bait, snacks and bottled water. Volunteers escort you to the pontoon and get you settled. Let’s Go Fishing also asks that you bring a sense of humor and abide by their no smoking rule. Smokers can light up before they get on or after they get off.
The Willmar chapter plans most trips for Green Lake in Spicer, which is known for its good bass fishing. If they judge the day to be too windy, however, they go to Long Lake near Hawick. Excursions are scheduled Monday through Thursday during the summer months. The Willmar chapter is currently scheduling trips for the 2013 season.
Roger has found a rewarding second career as Director of the Willmar chapter of Let’s Go Fishing. Although he enjoys the many challenges of his position, it is the people that keep him coming back. He has met many people from different walks of life who have become volunteers for Let’s Go Fishing. Roger has found that many of these wonderful volunteers have become friends. Of course, the guests are the main reason to be part of this organization. And bringing smiles to the faces of seniors and their families is what makes it all worthwhile. Roger tells of an older gentleman who thanked him with tears in his eyes, saying he didn’t think he’d ever go fishing again. Some guests have anticipated the trip to such a degree that they woke up early on the day of the trip. Roger has received many letters from families thanking him for the pleasure brought to their loved ones. Being part of this organization, Roger says, makes him feel proud and humbled at the same time.
Volunteers, says Roger, are always needed. In fact, in order to keep the organization operating at the level it has achieved so far, they continue to need additional volunteers. Volunteers can drive pontoons, assist with fishing, or help in other ways. If you have a little free time during the week, Let’s Go Fishing would love whatever help you can give.
Contact information for each local chapter of Let’s Go Fishing in Minnesota, is in the attached PDF.