Students With Special Needs Go Fishing At W.VA. Hatchery

LEETOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Students in Jefferson County Schools who are enrolled in special needs classrooms got a treat May 13 as they boarded buses headed to the Leetown Fish Hatchery for a day of casting their lines to reel in some mighty big fish.

An annual event for the students, the fishing trip had been canceled for the past few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As cloudy skies and showers loomed, students remained under the covered awning, looking eagerly toward the stocked lake and hoping that the drizzle didn’t turn into a downpour.

With them were multiple school staffers, fish hatchery volunteers and members of the local Kiwanis clubs. The Charles Town Kiwanis Club officially organizes the outing, and Charles Town members were joined by other Kiwanians from Shepherdstown as well.

After a short wait, the sun made its appearance and students gathered on the edges of the lake and on the deck over the water where they had helpers bait their hooks with corn kernels. It was typically only a matter of moments before the large fish attached themselves to the hooks and squealing children reeled them in while volunteers came along with nets to capture what were often 18- to 19-inch fish or larger.

Frank Roach, the coordinator of the fishing events at Leetown despite his official retirement from working there, shared that this is the 27th year the hatchery has hosted students for the fishing outing.

“I’ve been here 23 of those 27,” Roach said. “This is one of my favorite things, being out here with the kids.”

He added that even after his retirement, he continues organizing the outings as a volunteer. In addition to students, Roach said that seniors come to fish as well as veterans from the VA Center.

It takes a village in offering assistance to the kids fishing, and the volunteers have as much — if not more — fun than the students. Roach said that he had 18 volunteers on site for the event.

“There are a good dozen Kiwanians here, too,” added Dale Manuel, member of Charles Town’s group.

Manuel added: “We’re lucky the rain took a holiday and let us finish.”

Haley Ridgeway, one of the students who loves fishing, managed to find a lucky spot on the decking where she lowered her line straight down into the shadows. The fish were waiting, and she reeled in several throughout the day, including one that measured at 21 inches.

“I’m having fun,” Ridgeway laughed. “I love fishing,” she added.

Roach explained that he had stocked the lake with approximately 250 fish a few days prior to the students coming out.

“I station the kids around where I normally feed the fish so they will be looking for food,” Roach added.

The fish are grown from eggs at the hatchery under the auspices of the USDA.

“We raise as many as space allows,” said Josh Kretzer.

Teacher Erica Fisher said: “This is a special day for the kids. It’s so amazing that the Kiwanis set this up.”

She added that the kids start talking about the fishing trip early in the school year.

“The kids all encourage each other to catch a fish,” Fisher said. “But there is a bit of friendly competition.”

She said the students with the most fish caught and the largest fish would be recognized. She shared that just over 50 kids were on hand to fish.