Jairo Coca learned something new in his freshman physical education class last month. And he liked it.
“I’ve never seen a fish in person before now, for real, anyway,” Coca said as he admired a palm-sized bluegill that he reeled in. “This is my first fish. It’s pretty cool.”
Fifteen minutes, and three more bluegill later, it wasn’t just the fish that were hooked. Coca was baiting his hook and unhooking fish with ease, and said he would go fishing again. Most of the dozen classmates who shared his side of a two-acre pond said the same.
The pond is called Demon Lake, after the Dodge City High School’s mascot, and sits on the west side of the campus. Administrators say it’s as important as any classroom.
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“The pond has been a great thing for our kids, really,” said principal Jacque Feist. “It’s such a great opportunity for the kids. There just isn’t a lot of access to (recreational) water around Dodge City.”
Demon Lake is the brainchild and ongoing project of Dave Foster. He’s the school’s football and track coach, plus strength and conditioning instructor. He’s also a lifelong hunter and angler. He immediately knew fishing opportunities were few when he took the job in 2010. But he saw potential.
“I saw kind of marshy area as a place where kids might someday be able to fish,” Foster said, as he helped Coca and others fish for bass, bluegill and channel catfish. “I also knew the chances of (development) happening would be much higher if the school didn’t have to spend a lot of money.” They did not.
Foster spent about three years getting grants for the project, with the help of the Kansas Department of Wildilfe, Parks and Tourism. The pond was completed and full for the first time in 2014. A local group, the Ford County Sportsman’s Club, helped pay to get the pond stocked in the spring of 2015. This year, run-off from the school grounds has kept the pond full. If needed, Foster said they can divert cleaned sewage water from a nearby line to help keep the pond full.
Every student enrolled in a physical education gets to fish the pond at least three days per semester. All of the equipment is furnished, including the 6,000 worms students have already used this school year. Students are exempt from needing fishing licenses during school hours. Foster said physical education teachers are all certified under the Fishing’s Future program and guidelines.
But fishing is one of several outdoors-related activities offered to Dodge City’s high school students.
With Foster’s help, the Archery in the Schools program became part of the physical education curriculum in the fall of 2013. The school also has an archery team, which Feist quickly bragged of winning the state championship the last two years.
Foster said 175 kids sign up to take hunter education classes at the school annually. The local sportsman’s group hosts the graduates, and provides an opportunity to shoot some clay targets. About 40 of the kids are scheduled to be taken on a supervised pheasant hunt.
Raised in Claflin, a small central Kansas town with ample opportunities for fishing and hunting, Feist said she had no problems backing all the programs.
“We may be a rural community, but the majority of the kids don’t have any rural experience,” she said. “A large number of our students are Hispanic, and that’s often not a culture that’s had a lot of experience (with things like fishing and shooting). If we don’t provide these things, many might never get the chance.”
Feist said high school teachers use Demon Lake for teaching things such as ecology and photography. Foster said the school wants to use a patch of prairie he estimates to be 33 acres, also on school grounds, for educational and recreational uses.
Feist and Foster said students have quickly taken ownership in what they have.
“It’s pretty cool out here because we know we’re one of the only high schools in the state to have their own lake for fishing and stuff,” said Cedric Rosales, a freshman. “I think a lot of people like learning some new things, and getting a chance to be outdoors. It’s different than other classes.”
Foster said the outdoors clubs and classes give kids who may not be into sports something they can do together. He’s sure they do it because they like it.
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever had a kid late for archery (team) practice,” he said. “Most times they’re there well ahead of time. It’s not like that with most school activities.”
The area around the pond is also seeing increased use by other members of the Dodge City community. Fishing is open to all, if school is not in session. It’s catch-and-release angling. Feist said the public does a good job of policing each other at the lake. All segments, from elderly residents walking their dogs to a family fishing with young children, seem to find some good from the lake.
“It’s nice to see so many people using it. We have a young man who has autism, and he struggles in about all facets of life,” she said, “but when he’s casting a fishing pole he’s as good as anybody else. This place gives him maybe his only opportunity to be like others.... That’s pretty cool.”