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When he went fishing in Lake Michigan, 12-year-old Ben Gerger hooked a fish that was almost as tall as he was.

It was a fighter. Ben and the four other kids on his fishing boat worked the big steelhead salmon for a half hour, bringing it near the boat, letting out line as it fought to get loose from the hook, and reeling in the line again when the fish relaxed.

Ben even secured his fishing line in a waist harness so he could brace all of his body weight to pull in the fish. At the end, all five kids on his boat pitched in to bring the big guy in. It was so heavy that Ben needed a little help to hold it up for the picture.

“That fish was strong,” observed Michael Quirk, 12, who was on Ben’s ship.

Ben and Michael went on the 6-hour Lake Michigan fishing trip through “Hooked on Fishing,” the newest of the Forest Park Police Department’s youth programs. Forest Park’s police also supervise free golf, karate, biking, basketball and camping programs, funded through government grants, for kids in Forest Park.

The six-hour, 25-dollar Lake Michigan charter trip was the highlight of this year’s fishing program, but the police department also organized four other smaller fishing expeditions, at private ponds and the Lake View Nature Center in Oakbrook Terrace.

“I like kids. I like to see them happy,” said Bill Plum, an auxiliary police officer who supervised the five kids on Ben’s boat. “I like to see them do things they don’t usually get to do.”

On the Lake Michigan trip, there were about 15 fishing rods secured in holders around the ship, Plum said. The kids flitted from line to line as the boat trolled around the lake, looking for a fishing rod to jerk out of its holder”a sure sign that a fish was biting. They kids took turns reeling the fish in, so every kid had the chance to catch one. The final catch was 12 fish for each of the two boats.

“It’s something that adults dream about doing,” Plum said.

Once one of the rods started jerking, it became a war, with the five kids on one side and the fish struggling for its life. Soon, they fell into a pattern, with two kids tugging on each side of the pole and one wearing the waist holster. “Once a fish got on the line, they all worked together,” Plum said. “I don’t think they had any idea how strong fish are.”

Because they work the fish so much while catching them, ordinances prevent fishermen from returning the stressed salmon to the lake, so each of the 10 kids got to take home a portion of the catch.

The boys loved the blood, guts and gore of watching the captains clean the fish. And the final cooked salmon got good reviews, although “there were still little bones in them,” as Cory Sansone, 12, said. Each kid got to take home two filets.

Lakes bursting with fish

Although the big trip filled up at 10 kids, about 50 kids participated in the free day trips. The little lakes were bursting with fish, and the police department provided the hooks, bait and supervision.

Asia Haney, 13, had never been fishing before, and she was surprised when she caught seven fish during the day trips. She even learned how to bait a hook (although she still doesn’t like worms) and she perfected the right way to hold a fish. “It’s fun and it’s a learning experience,” Asia said about the program.

Most of the kids had never fished before, so helping 15 inexperienced kids bait their hooks, untangle their lines, take the fish off and snap photos of their catches kept the policemen going at every second. Plus, it was catch and release, so the policemen tried to keep the bluegill, bass, perch and catfish alive.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Eric Bell, a policeman and a supervisor for most of the outings. “We were basically running from kid to kid, no chance to sit down.”

They got a bit of help from parent volunteers and Cory Sansone, who went on a trip with the 5 to 8-year-old kids and helped the cops bait the hooks and take the fish off. He caught most of his 13 summer fish on these smaller trips.

The ulterior motive

Although the summer programs were initially intended for troubled kids, they are now open for any kids who want to participate. All the kids who go to school in Forest Park received a flyer before the summer.

The policemen also recruit the kids they see out on Madison Street or around the village while they’re patrolling on bikes, motorcycles and on foot.

It’s an attempt to get kids off the street and a relief for kids who have single parents or both of their parents working full-time jobs, according to Bell. “This really is an alternative to getting in trouble,” he said. “I want to get kids interested in the outdoors, interested in fishing and uninterested in TV.”

And it works. Although the police station can’t release specific information about minors, “we deal with kids noticeably less on a negative basis,” since the police programs began, Bell said.

Furthermore, the kids begin to see that cops are regular people who aren’t out to get them. “I see them on the street, I talk to them, I tease them,” said Plum about the kids he has worked with on the fishing trip.

“It’s good to be in a position to be able to provide this,” Bell said.