"I got it! I got it!" Oscar Martin exclaimed on Friday morning as he snagged a plastic fish on the gym floor at St. Thomas Catholic School. "My first time fishing!"
Martin was among the nine boys in the third- and fourth-grade class who practiced casting with district park manager John Bame, an activity he used to introduce the state's "Go Forth" program. He also tested their fish identification skills and told them about other activities at Lake Herman State Park.
"You can throw frisbees into baskets. You can go hiking. You can go fishing," he said. "We have canoes. We have kayaks. We have paddleboards."
The "Go Forth" program is a collaboration between the state Department of Game, Fish & Parks and the state Department of Health. The goal is to give fourth-graders in South Dakota "a special taste of summer freedom," according to a GFP press release.
Through the program, free one-day park entrance licenses are issued to every fourth-grade student in South Dakota. The program allows both the students and their families to visit state parks and use rental equipment at no charge. If they are unable to visit a park, they can get a free one-year subscription to GFP's Conservation Digest.
"The program aims to give every fourth-grade student exposure to the great outdoors and a chance to start a lifetime of healthy habits," GFP Secretary Kevin Robling said in the press release. "The program showcases activities and opportunities available at state parks and recreation areas, as well as events and educational programs taking place."
"Go Forth" is just one of several programs that GFP is sponsoring to attract area families to state parks. Another is the State Park Poker Run, which will begin on April 15 and run through Oct. 31. The poker run is similar to the "Creatures of the Night Hike and Seek" contest which was held last fall.
"This time, if you find a sign with a playing card on it, you take a selfie with it," Bame explained.
The contest offers two chances to win. The first involves finding all five cards at a single location. The other involves putting together the best possible hand from three different participating locations.
"With COVID, we're looking for self-guided outdoor activities," Bame said. "It gets you outside hiking on our trail systems."
The rules indicate people of all ages can participate, and families can enter together if they choose. "Bicyclists, hikers, walkers and horseback riders are eligible to enter as long as that activity is allowed on the participating trail," the rules state.
In the Madison area, three game locations have been established. The first is at Lake Herman State Park. The second is at Walker's Point Recreation Area. The third is along the bike path that runs from Madison to Johnson's Point.
"There's no rhyme or reason where they're at. It's a bit of a scavenger hunt," Bame indicated. He added that all are visible from the trail.
To enter, individuals should submit the five selfies to firstname.lastname@example.org, including their name, mailing address and participating location. Rules indicate submissions will receive an email reply to confirm entry. One entry from each location will be randomly selected to win a prize.
For the best hand grand prize, the five selfies must include cards from at least three different participating locations. A list of those locations can be found at gfp.sd.gov/poker-run.
The best hand "will be determined by standard Texas hold 'em poker hand rankings," according to the rules. "Only hands that can be made from a standard 52-card deck are eligible -- no duplicate cards or five-of-a-kind."
If multiple entries have the same best hand, the winner will be randomly selected.
Locally, Bame is excited about another improvement to Lake Herman State Park.
"We're working to turn Herman Pond into an urban fishery," he said.
While the fishing dock is located on Herman Pond, in the past this has not been a good place to catch fish. Testing indicated the oxygen level in the pond did not support a strong fishery.
However, Bame has worked with others in the department to get an aeration system installed to address this issue. In addition, GFP has begun to stock the pond with adult northern pike.
"We're not stocking it for trophy fish; we're stocking it for catching fish," Bame said.
With this improvement, he is excited about the possibility of doing more programs related to fishing in that area. In the past it was a challenge.
"It's the prefect place to do programs and activities. The toughest thing about the activities was to get fish to bite," he said. "In the next couple years we'll build it into a pretty good fishery."
On Friday morning, in addition to giving students at St. Thomas the opportunity to practice casting, Bame shared with them three tips for fishing. He first told them that they could fish without a license until the age of 16, that they just needed a rod and gear to fish.
"When you are out fishing, make sure you keep your hook safe until you cast," he told students, and reminded them to look behind before casting so the hook didn't catch another individual.
"When you do get a bite," Bame said, "set the hook."
Finally, he told students, "Bring a friend. It's always good to fish with somebody else."
This not only increases the pleasure but is also a safety precaution. If an accident occurs, this ensures someone will be able to assist or go for help.
Bame indicated that Herman Luce Day will be held at Lake Herman State Park on June 12 and said camping is filling up. Currently, there are few or no vacancies through the Fourth of July.