Not only has the winter provided better conditions for ice fishing this year, but the 20th annual Trustworthy Hardware Ice Fishing Derby is kicking off with more divisions and options, too.
For two decades, the Soldotna hardware store has run a winter fishing derby for those who want to try their hand at catching some of the resident species in area lakes. The 2017 derby will continue the old traditions and build on some established in recent years.
One of those is a catch-and-release category, which awards a prize for the longest fish caught and returned to the water alive. Participants just need to take a picture of the fish next to a measuring stick before releasing it and send in the picture to enter, and the angler with the largest fish takes home a $250 Trustworthy gift card.
The catch-and-release category was new last year, said Scott Miller, co-owner of the store.
“Last year, I think we had 30 people text in pictures,” he said. “We had a couple of rainbows win that division last year.”
Many ice fishing derbies in the Lower 48 are catch-and-release only. The ice fishing derby in Brainerd, Minnesota, one of the largest in the country, requires participants to bring catches to be weighed alive because the contest is live-release only. Miller said he talked to some of the coordinators for catch-and-release derbies before deciding to try it on the annual Kenai Peninsula derby.
They also decided to add an option for fishermen to call in with their catches and check the leaderboard. If a particular fish won’t make it onto the leaderboard, the angler can know to let it go that way, Miller said.
Miller said part of the rationale for both new additions was pressures on smaller lakes over the last few years, as warm weather has prevented solid ice from forming on the larger Kenai, Skilak and Tustumena lakes, which are large producers of trout and popular ice fishing destinations. One lake in particular Miller said he worries about is Hidden Lake, adjacent to Skilak Lake, which has historically been an excellent lake trout producer.
Hidden Lake’s trout were a source of concern in 2011 and 2012, with the fish being reported as smaller and fewer. The state Board of Fisheries dropped the bag limit from 12 fish to two fish in response to conservation concerns, and the annual harvest of lake trout has decreased.
“That’s when we started thinking about catch and release division, knowing how special those lake trout are,” Miller said. “We give a pretty significant prize for that, that’s a $250 gift card. We have little catch and release troughs that we will let people use for free.”
This year, though, the ice is back. When the ice fishing derby kicked off Feb. 1, Miller said someone brought in about eight northern pike taken from the Tote Road lakes, the last ones on the central peninsula with northern pike populations after Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists netted and used piscicides to eradicate the invasive fish from the other lakes in the area.
Pike have their own division within the derby. This year, there are 25 divisions for various fish and age groups, with prizes and winners in each. Prizes include items like Mongoose mountain bikes for kids, an underwater camera and BB guns for the kids, and rods and reels for adults and gift cards.
Fishermen have already been out enjoying the lakes this winter. Kenai Lake in particular has been a popular spot, said Jason Lesmeister of Jason’s Guide Service in Cooper Landing.
In addition to summer trips, Lesmeister guides ice fishing trips. The ice some of the lakes, like Hidden Lake, is thick enough to drive on now, he said.
“Fishing is good,” he said. “It’s pretty cut and dry — lake trout, rainbows and dollies. It’s primarily been rainbows and (lake trout).”
Hidden Lake gets busier when the derby gets going because it’s so accessible — not only does it have road access, people can drive right onto it, Lesmeister said. Some of the other lakes, like Skilak, don’t have driving access and take a little more work to get to, he said.
Miller said he advised people to review the Fish and Game regulations on different lakes when they go fishing. Because Kenai and Skilak lakes are part of the Kenai River drainage, they are part of the Kenai River Special Management Area and are subject to different regulations than other freshwater lakes on the peninsula. Island Lake in Nikiski, Spirit Lake in Kenai and Longmere Lake in Soldotna tend to be popular, as do the smaller lakes like Scout Lake and Sport Lake, he said.
The goal of the derby, which is free to enter, is to get people engaged, Miller said. Usually, more than 1,000 people participate, he said.
“The big deal is just getting families out, getting them fishing,” he said.
To enter, visit Trustworthy Hardware and Fishing in Soldotna. The derby runs the entire month of February.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.