By Joseph Robertia
While the sun had supposedly risen, it was engulfed by the gray, featureless sky. Only minimal light and no discernible warmth greeted Dana Johnstone as she huddled over a plate-sized hole in the lake ice, looking down into the dark water.
She was on Daniels Lake in Nikiski last month with several family members. They were spread out and silent, each lost in their own contemplation of similar openings cut into the ice and what, if anything, would come from their efforts via the water.
Johnstone held a fishing rod not much longer and even thinner than a drumstick, and jigged it up and down. Somewhere below a tiny pink shrimp bobbed in what Johnstone hoped was an enticing dance. Before long, success.
She reeled against the tension in the line, and after a brief battle a trout flopped up through the hole, silver as a newly minted dime, peppered with speckles and streaked with pink ribbons as vibrant as the petals of wild roses in summer.
“It’s exciting to get a fish,” she said.
Later that day, Johnstone hauled the fish into Soldotna to Trustworthy Hardware and Fishing to have it weighed as part of the store’s 18th annual Ice Fishing Derby, a monthlong competition which ended Saturday.
Johnstone’s rainbow trout weighed 1.84 pounds, which was good enough to hold second place for a few days, but eventually got bumped off the leader board by larger fish. She and her family kept fishing until the end of the competition. Her teenage daughter, Christina, caught her own rainbow trout on the final day, but it was slightly smaller than her mom’s.
“This is our first year in the derby,” Johnstone said. “I’ve fished my whole life and we fish as a family year-round, but we usually do catch and release.”
This winter has been a trying one for outdoors enthusiasts. Skiing, snowmachining and dog mushing have all been challenging on the Kenai Peninsula due to a lack of snow and frequent periods of warm weather. Johnstone said that ice fishing has been challenging, too, but more do-able than many other activities.
“We just didn’t go when it got too slushy out there,” she said.
Dawn Nushart, the Trustworthy employee overseeing the competition, said the unseasonably warm weather had her and the other organizers worried about how this year’s event would go.
“It’s been an adventure, but people have still been able to get out and do it and we’ve seen some big fish come. We have around 700-plus people entered this year, which is pretty significant. In the past we’ve had as many as 1,000-plus sign up,” she said.
Nushart said that the ice anglers aren’t just local folks, either. The event draws fishermen from Seward, Palmer and Wasilla, just to name a few locations.
“It’s definitely expanded beyond the peninsula. People like to come down and try their luck,” she said.
This year, though, she said that the thing they all had in common was needing more gear than just the usual fishing tackle to take part, since many of the lakes were snowless for portions of the year. Worse still, some fishing spots had accumulated several-inch-deep standing water over the frozen ice.
“People were still out doing it, but were wearing breakup boots and ice cleats,” she said.
Despite donning duds for soggy weather, the fishermen fared well this year. Nushart said that at least two contenders — including Nicholas McConnell in the kids division — caught what the store refers to as a Straight Flush (or Grand Slam for those under 18), which consists of at least one rainbow trout, a Dolly Varden, a lake trout, a kokanee (land-locked salmon) and a Northern pike.
Jeremiah Voight, of Soldotna, came close to getting a Royal Flush — all the previously listed fish plus a burbot, grayling and whitefish.
“He had everything but the whitefish, but then he had to go back to work,” Nushart said. “It’s too bad. No one has ever gotten the full Royal Flush before.”
Bryan Copenhaver, along with his kids Kylie, 10, Cayden, 7, and Chase, 5, focused on one species and have done nothing short of slaying Northern pike during the competition. On the final day alone they caught half a dozen, although the Copenhaver clan was secretive about their choice of location.
“I don’t want to say where it is, but I can tell you we’ve averaged about four pike every time we’ve gone out,” he said.
All of his kids at one time or another held a place on the standings board, but when they started to knock each other out of contention Kylie decided to move over to competing in the adult event with her 4-pound pike.
“They’re pretty competitive with themselves and of course get really excited when they catch a fish, so when we put the lines out, we have a specific order to who will reel them in and they have to stick to it,” Copenhaver said.
“It’s funny, actually,” he added. “I know (the Alaska Department of) Fish and Game is trying to eradicate pike, but every time these kids hear another lake is pike-free, they shed a tear.”
But Copenhaver said that he understands keeping ecosystems in balance. He grew up ice fishing in Michigan with his father and grandfather, and they still use the tip-up rods the eldest of the Copenhaver clan made.
“I guess you could say it’s always been kind of a family tradition,” he said. It’s a tradition he is continuing with his own kids, since they have been ice fishing since they could safely stand over an open hole.
“The derby is something we really enjoy as a family. The kids like catching fish, but also we’ll take the four-wheelers out and drill holes in the lake and play golf. We just have fun with it all, being outside and active,” he said.
Kylie said that the only downside is how early they have to get up to be successful. But rising at dawn isn’t so bad when her dad stops by Moose Is Loose for donuts on the way to the lake, she said.
The 10-year-old was proud to handle her own fish at the store, causing a clerk to ask her father why Kylie didn’t mind getting covered with a fishy scent from the slimy catch.
Copenhaver just cracked a smile and said, “She knows that’s the smell of success.”