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Paul the Portage Pike can’t speak, but answered a question for Brad Meixner.

Meixner’s ice fishing club at Portage High School has 62 members and sent 16 of them to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Fishing Association’s state tournament Saturday in La Crosse.

Eighty-four high schools participated — up from about 65 schools last year, WIFA reported — and when the students returned to school Monday morning, Meixner pointed to the team’s mascot for help in explaining the sport’s seemingly rapid growth.

“I think it’s about making connections. I think Paul demonstrates that,” said Meixner, the school’s dean of students who also coaches the Warriors’ track and field and cross country teams. “These kids are not your prototypical athletes, but they’re finding ways to build relationships with their school.”

About a month ago, school guidance counselor Laura Kallenback donated the 38-inch stuffed pike to the club, Meixner said. Paul — caught somewhere in Wisconsin in the 1970s — now travels with the students to all of their tournaments, and when tournament season ends, they’ll sign Paul’s mount board for posterity.

“It’s insane. It’s crazy,” Meixner said of seeing more than 1,000 Wisconsin high school students fishing all at once on the Mississippi River for the state tournament, thinking also of what the tournament field might look like next year. “I just received a call from a lady in Cambria who wants to learn how to start a team.”

The Portage club is in its second year and formed two teams for the tournament in La Crosse — its team of 10 students finished 31st overall out of 97 teams and its second team of six students finished 53rd. The two teams combined for more than 300 inches in caught fish length.

About 120 Wisconsin schools registered for WIFA events during the 2018-19 school year, up from about 90 registrations last year, WIFA spokesman Scott Lafler said. Other area schools that registered with WIFA include Rio, Poynette, Pardeeville and Baraboo.

“I think we’re filling a niche — a real need,” Lafler said of ice fishing’s popularity in schools. “I don’t think there’s a single reason for it, but a lot of (school leaders) tell me the sport crosses borders: There are no varsity teams, so the ages are mixed. The teams make jerseys, they hold raffles to fund their programs and they gain skills that last a lifetime.”

Portage High School senior Emily McReath caught eight bluegills and one 11½ inch crappie in La Crosse. She says she joined the club late last year because she’s been ice fishing with her dad since she was 9 years old.

Saturday marked her first state tournament.

“It’s not about how well we did, but how much fun we had,” McReath said. “I think it’s about the memories we make. That’s the biggest thing.”

Sophomore Aidan Statz has enjoyed the sport since he was 6. Statz doesn’t participate in other sports at Portage High School, and that’s not uncommon among the other members on the club’s roster, Meixner said. Only five of the 16 students who traveled to La Crosse currently participate in other sports.

“I just like being with my friends,” Statz said. “We have a lot of laughs when we’re out there on the ice.”

Meixner pointed out how Statz has been to all six tournaments this year and how he took charge of relaying relevant tournament information for all of his teammates.

“This is his life right now, and that’s awesome,” Meixner said of reaching Statz and others like him who perhaps didn’t belong to other clubs before they started ice fishing for the school.

Meixner is also seeing rising grades among his students who must reach certain thresholds to participate in tournaments.

“It’s really making a big difference for our kids who like to hunt and fish,” Meixner said.

The club supports itself financially, just like all school clubs, Meixner said. Those who wish to donate to the team should contact Meixner at 608-742-8545.

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.

Reporter

Portage Daily Register Reporter