Winona’s Fish n’ Float about to set sail
by BEN MCLEOD
Minnesota’s fishing season is around the corner. The walleye and bass openers are on May 12, and muskie opens in June. The ice is finally off the lakes, rivers and streams, and the days are filled with more spring than winter. But what about those avid fishing fans who, due to disability or age, can’t get out on the river the way they’d like? Winona’s Friendship Center Activity Council (WFCAC) has a solution on the way. With the help of a $19,000 donation from Miller Ingenuity, and individual and corporate donations for a total of $45,000, the WFCAC will soon be kicking off its 2018 season of the Winona Friendship Fish ‘n Float program.
The WFCAC had previously been a participant in the statewide Let’s Go Fishing program, but decided after some conflict last season that the Friendship Center and Winona’s fishing fans would be better served by striking out on their own. Miller Ingenuity CEO Steve Blue recalled the conversation with Fish ‘n Float organizer Dave Rowekamp. “Dave was involved with the program, and he said, ‘We’re not going to let this thing die,’” explained Blue. “He called me and asked if I could help on the money side and I said, ‘How much do you need to close that gap?’ I gave them the $19,000 so they could be done with the fundraising and keep the program afloat.” The donation from Miller Ingenuity has allowed the club to purchase a pontoon boat and will cover the first year’s operating expenses.
WFCAC’s Jean Dowd was understandably excited. “We just bought our first boat! It’s going to be in the Steamboat Days parade,” she said. Rowekamp was also excited about the boat, and the manufacturer’s willingness to work with Fish ‘n Float to customize a craft for the needs of the population expected to use it. With an extra-wide gate and custom seating, the boat will be able to facilitate two wheelchairs. “It’s coming from TMC, Inc., in Poskin, [Wis.] They’re the only company we could find who would do that. They’re a very good company to work with,” Rowekamp said. “It doesn’t have typical pontoon seating. All the individual seats have armrests that fold up and down, and there’s nine of those seats. A lot of pontoons come off the factory floor with benches, and benches usually face inward. We don’t want that; people want to look outward, but these seats swivel so it’s pretty customized.” Another special feature is a full-length canopy, including side-panels that can be rolled up or down, with large windows so days that might have been otherwise too sunny or windy or rainy won’t prevent the enjoyment of the passengers. The canopy will be made by Rite-Way Canvas Shade in Winona.
“The fishing trips last two hours, the boating trips are an hour and a half,” said Rowekamp. “We take them to the main channel or sometimes the backwaters. When I’m on the trip I usually say, ‘Where would you folks like to go today?’ So we do honor majority requests.” Rowekamp is participating out of a civic-mindedness, but also because he loves the water. “It’s a great program in terms of getting the elderly out and into the fresh air and whatnot. Or people who are otherwise unable to access the river, whether they’re handicapped, or financially handicapped as well. We do this gratis on an extremely low budget.”
Blue is also a lover of boating but credits Rowekamp as the driving force in the organization. “Dave was the engine and inspiration. I get around town a lot and I know people that don’t get a chance to get out there. There’s people who live in Winona their whole lives and never get out there. For seniors it can be hard to get around but when they get out and onto the river, you see their faces when they’re on the boat and it’s incredible,” said Blue.
Rowecamp and Blue are among the volunteer captains for the project, individuals with boating experience who take training with the group’s safety coordinator. Since the project has no paid employees, volunteer captains are in high demand. “We definitely need volunteers so the people we already have onboard don’t have to take so many and go out so often,” explained Rowekamp. “It’s difficult for people who are working. There’s kind of a select group who have the time. But you can take as many or as few as you like. It’s up to the person how involved they want to be. Clients manufacture themselves by word-of-mouth and past experience, but volunteers, we couldn’t possibly have too many.”
“We’ve been running free pontoon boat rides for close to 10 years,” Dowd recalled, “to take nursing home [residents] and seniors out, specializing in seniors, veterans, youth groups, park and rec groups, also fishing classes for kids.” Fish ‘n Float has all the hallmarks of a community program. Along with the donation from Miller Ingenuity, local businesses and individuals have made financial contributions. McDonald’s will donate the ice for the water cooler, and ACE Hardware continues to donate bait. ACE fishing manager Nate Sense is a fan of the project. “It’s a win-win for us. They take the kids out fishing and they go crazy for it, then they bug their parents to fish more and then they need more bait.”
The Fish ‘n Float does not provide fishing licenses, and expects any of the program’s participants to obtain their own license before boarding the boat. Minnesota youth under 16 and those Minnesotans over 90 years of age do not require a license for most kinds of fishing, nor do residents of extended care facilities. Most licenses can be purchased online at mndnr.gov/buyalicense. Facilities, clubs and organizations interested in participating in the Fish ‘n Float program or individuals interested in volunteering can contact Dave Rowekamp at email@example.com or by phone at 507-452-8311.