Waiting/Wading

Corn kernels and diced hot dogs are the day’s bait.

There are a few small piles of each on the rocks and benches along the Echo Valley Waterfront.

Twenty-some Barnes Middle School sixth-graders line the waterfront, too, waiting for help casting their lines, waiting for help untangling their line from the branches above or the line of students next to them, or simply waiting for a bite. It’s the second of two yearly retreats for the school, when they bus out half of their sixth grade students at a time to experience the Frio River Canyon.

Among the facilitators helping those students at both retreats is Jason Schmidt, Barnes Middle School Principal and the day’s fishing—and fly fishing—instructor.

“I lucked out on that one,” Schmidt says. “I don’t ‘recreate’ very well, but fly fishing is something I’ve been doing for the past 20 years.”

In his intro for each batch of students, he talks casting, bait, safety, lightly on science and geology, and promises that anyone who catches a bass gets to ring the Echo Valley bell as a reward. After that, he presents the alternative of fly fishing: fishing with a longer rod in a way that mimics flies landing on the water for bait.

“Maybe 75 percent of them raise their hands when you ask who’s been fishing,” Schmidt tells me, “but almost none have ever tried fly fishing.”

After about 20-30 minutes, some students have already caught a perch and others are still catching tree branches. Schmidt calls for those interested in fly fishing to come up the hill to the Ranch House, where waders of assorted sizes are laid out for students to climb into.

For some students, even just putting on the waders is enough of an experience.

For some students, even just putting on the waders is enough of an experience.

There are laughs, giggles, and a student exclaims, “Ah! Mine are wet on the inside!” Some, of course, just want their friends to see them in oversized rubber overalls, but most of these fly-fishing newbies are excited for a chance to try something new.

They wade into the river below the Echo Valley dam, and Schmidt takes a moment with each student to teach the basics of casting with a fly rod. Soon, they all show off to one another, casting into the shaded part of the river past the Echo Valley Waterfront dam. None managed a fly fishing catch that cool September Wednesday, but that didn’t seem to detract from the experience.

Schmidt believes unique experiences like these are accomplishing two things. First, they encourage students to learn to take risks. Second, they develop relationships between staff and students that are foundational to the rest of the school year and their middle school experience overall.

“There’s a level of experience that we can all connect with,” Schmidt says. “You get a chance to help a kid jump across cracks in the river or teach them to tie a knot. It’s very difficult for an administrator to make that level of connection at a school.”

Schmidt acknowledges these goals weren’t as attainable the past few years. This Outdoor School retreat is breathing life into their whole-child approach to education.

Breathing life into their whole-child approach to education

“And they’re sixth-graders, so there’s comedy, there’s drama…” Schmidt goes on. “It’s good for your soul just being around these kids.”

The excited and envious shouts of students when one reels in a bass sends ripples of excitement through the group at the waterfront, including the teachers and coaches facilitating the activity. Everyone smiles as the lucky students take fish off their lines and release them back into the Frio.

“You walk out of here on cloud nine,” Schmidt says. “You walk out of here happy about humanity again.”

“You walk out of here on cloud nine; you walk out of here happy about humanity again.”