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From his wheelchair, Bill Block felt a tug on his fishing rod just below the surface of misty Lake Riley in Eden Prairie. Along with his bright yellow life jacket, Block brought on board another life-saving element — his oxygen tank — as he battled the fish thrashing left and right.

Then Block, a U.S. Navy veteran, broke into a knowing smile as he reeled in his ferocious opponent: a sunfish no bigger than his hand.

Block was 80 at the time and residing in an assisted living facility in Burnsville when he made that memorable trip in 2017. His sponsor was the Eden Prairie chapter of Let's Go Fishing (LGF), a volunteer-run nonprofit with 17 affiliates across Minnesota and Wisconsin. The organization provides free fishing trips to seniors, hospice patients, youth and families.

Last year, the chapter provided 320 trips to more than 4,100 people.

Residents of a local group home prepared for a sunny day of fishing. In an average year, LGF provides trips to as many as 500 individuals who rely on wheelchairs or motorized scooters for assistance.
Residents of a local group home prepared for a sunny day of fishing. In an average year, LGF provides trips to as many as 500 individuals who rely on wheelchairs or motorized scooters for assistance.

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"Can you imagine being in an assisted living facility and [having] the chance to go fishing?" said Block's son, also named Bill Block. The elder Block's grandson also made the Lake Riley expedition, the fifth in the line of Bill Blocks.

"Get outside in the water and the sun and the pontoon boat and it's all set up for someone in a wheelchair. That was key," said his son.

Having grown up fishing on lakes in McLeod and Kandiyohi counties, Block seized the opportunity to relive the joy of his youth with his family alongside him. Like so many seniors whom LGF serves, Block continued to regale facility staff with tales of the trip until he died in 2020.

President Steve Wilson, 73, has overseen the growth of LGF from its inception in 2012. He tears up when thinking about Block's trip.

"We fished for two hours, and he caught more fish than anybody," Wilson said. "He had the biggest smile on his face, and it was just a miracle. It was wonderful."

Three generations of Bill Block made fishing memories together.
Three generations of Bill Block made fishing memories together.

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Wilson took on this work after seeing his father and father-in-law at the end of their lives — two Minnesota men who could no longer experience the joy of fishing, something they'd both cherished since childhood.

"My dad died at 90 and my father-in-law died at 97, and they couldn't get in a regular boat," Wilson said. "This was not available to them. I want to do this for other people."

He's served on the LGF state board since 2015 while also working as president of the Eden Prairie chapter, the largest in the organization.

Once the season starts June 1, Eden Prairie runs 23 trips a week until late September, all free. Last year, 50 volunteers stepped up, many still working full time.

Wilson also ended up leading trips, which included volunteering to drive the boat, helping to bait and cast rods, and educating participants about the area's wildlife.

It's a lot of work, but volunteers agree that providing a way for people to fish makes it all worthwhile.

Donna Andrews of Eden Prairie held up a bluegill. She grew up in Wisconsin learning the joys of fishing from her father.
Donna Andrews of Eden Prairie held up a bluegill. She grew up in Wisconsin learning the joys of fishing from her father.

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At an LGF event in April, fundraising coordinator Tina Palmer talked to a mother whose son uses a wheelchair. He loves fishing more than anything, the mother said, and the only way she knew to get her son on the water was to pay $750 for a six-hour charter.

"I said, 'Well, our trips are only two hours, but they're free,'" Palmer told the mom. "And we do all the work."

That includes providing safety equipment, rods and reels, "and we make sure we can get them on board," Palmer said, adding that the mom told her she was planning to book a trip for her son this summer.

For seniors in assisted living and hospice care, this opportunity can have therapeutic — even healing — effects. Wilson tells the story of a non-verbal man who went out with the LGF chapter in Willmar and led the boat in the number of fish he hauled in.

After he got back to his assisted living facility, the chapter got a phone call from the staff there. "What did you do to him?" they asked.

The man had started to talk again. No one he lived with or who worked with him had ever heard him say a word. But suddenly he had a lot to say about the excitement of fishing and being on the lake.

"Getting out on the water has a therapeutic effect on people," Wilson said. "They remember when they had kids and were taking them fishing. They remember when they were younger. Now all these seniors are locked up in a small little room in a nursing home, and they don't get to do any of those things. So, this is a life-changing moment for them."

A young participant showed delight as he reeled in a largemouth bass.
A young participant showed delight as he reeled in a largemouth bass.

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Libby Jensen has seen similar benefits for her residents at Summit Place, an assisted living facility about 4miles from Lake Riley. For the last five years, the Eden Prairie chapter has provided trips for seniors living there.

"I think that's just a key for people, especially in memory care," said Jensen of getting people back onto the lake and into nature.

"Their worlds just get smaller as their brain function decreases, and that just opens up their minds. It opens up their memories of ... growing up as children, and a lot of them were farmers living in the country. I think the water helps open up someone's soul a little bit to breathe a little easier."

She relays the story of a resident named Paul, who had received a terminal diagnosis. He decided that if he had to go, he might as well be fishing. The staff still remembers his joy when he returned from his trip with LGF, having caught plenty of fish during a great day on the lake. He died 10 days later.

For Block's son, the most lasting memory from that 2017 trip was watching his own son interact with his dad: A grandfather sharing his tackle box and telling old stories about the huge northern pike he once caught.

"In my case, this is a super meaningful thing because we grew up on a lake, my dad built a house there, he ends up being disabled and can't fish, but we get him back on the lake with Let's Go Fishing," Block said.

"The love between a son and his dad is like nothing else, and the fact we could do that meant so much to me."

John Volk is a sports reporting intern for the Star Tribune.