It’s that time of year again when the resident fish of Sport Lake and Johnshon Lake get some visitors: hundreds of children intent on catching them.
Each year, students from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District gather for ice fishing excursions on the two lakes over the course of three days. Jenny Gates, a fisheries biologist with the Soldotna office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, organizes the trips and said this year’s ice fishing excursions saw participation from 18 schools. The trips typically see 720-750 students each year, she said.
“This is just a fun winter activity,” Gates said. “Kids can get outside and learn something new.”
The trips are part of the Salmon in the Classroom program put on through Fish and Game. Some teachers who have their students participate have been using the curriculum for years, Gates said.
Students from four Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Sciences classes shuffled out onto the ice of Sport Lake Friday afternoon after a quick lesson on fishing and safety, armed with rods, warm clothes and just a bit of shrimp as bait. They quickly started trying out different techniques for reeling in the sought after fish, and could be seen checking in with their friends and trading tips.
Ryder Lageson and Josiah Holloway, two third graders from Kaleidoscope, used teamwork while patiently waiting for fish to come past their respective lines on Friday. Lageson used his headlight to peer down into the hole where Holloway fished, scoping out the situation and trying to determine if his friend still had bait on the end of his line.
Holloway has been fishing three times before, while Lageson said he’s been doing it since he was a toddler. Though their experience differs, they both agreed on one thing: the hardest part about fishing is the waiting.
They also agreed that actually catching a fish is the best part of the overall experience. The boys are also a fan of cooking them up and eating them with their families.
“My pop and grandma go fishing a lot, and they have fish for almost every dinner,” Holloway said.
Katy McKinley, who teaches fifth graders at Sterling Elementary, oversaw a group of students from that school while they fished earlier Friday morning. This was her third year bringing students to the ice fishing field trip. McKinley said she takes her students on numerous outdoor activities, and the ice fishing is a good way for them to work on something in the community that they can later celebrate back in the classroom.
“Probably the biggest thing is, this is about the kids,” McKinley said. “This is about getting them out in the community. That is my whole philosophy.”
More than that, the trips tie in with the overarching Salmon in the Classroom program. Students who participate in the curriculum start out with raising coho salmon eggs in the fall, learn more about fish with dissection lessons, and practice catching fish during the ice fishing field trips before coming together in the spring for a celebration during which mature fry are released.
“Last week we did salmon dissection, which they absolutely loved,” McKinley said. “Some of them threw up.”
Gates said the students who do end up catching fish during the field trips get to keep them and take them home to their families. The program does include a section on catch and release, and Gates said there are some kids who opts to return their catches to the lakes.
Once springtime roles around, students will gather again to release the fish they spent the year raising. While the ice fishing trips are for the classes that participate in the program, the salmon celebration in the spring is open to all students, Gates said.
“Hopefully, I think the kids are making a connection between (this and) their coho salmon that they’re raising,” Gates said. “Here they are fishing for land-locked salmon, in this case it’s Chinook salmon, and also rainbow trout.”
In addition to members of Fish and Game, volunteers for agencies including the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, the Kenai Watershed Forum and the U.S. Forest Service came out to help kids in the quest for fish this year.