By Joseph Robertia
The morning sun still hung low on the horizon, not yet giving off much warmth but casting an orange glow on the blue armor of ice still encasing the 70 acres of Sport Lake in Soldotna. In the 24-degree air, plumes of warm air swirled around the mass of excited kids, but their breath, visible as it was, didn’t hold their attention, even though, on occasion, excitement caused them to hold it entirely.
Clutched in their mitten-clad hands, tiny rods dropped lines beaded with ice into holes augured through the ice. In the water below, a small cocktail shrimp on a hook was bobbed just off the lake bottom. This stationary, repetitive, no-guarantees activity held the full attention of the students — all 750 of them from 19 schools and home-schooled programs.
The annual ice fishing event, held Feb. 17 and 18 this year, was part of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Aquatic Education Program. It also serves as a seasonal bookend to the much broader Salmon in the Classroom program, which began in the fall when these same kids stood streamside at the Anchor River to learn how the life of some salmon ends and begins for others.
“They learned about the salmon life cycle, spawning and were exposed to how we do egg takes. They then took those eggs back to their classrooms to watch and study them as they develop and grow,” said Jenny Cope, a fisheries biologist from the Soldotna Fish and Game office.
For the last month and a half, Cope has been visiting participating schools and conducting salmon dissections to continue with the ichthyological education.
“This teaches them about the anatomy of fish and the different functions of their organs,” she said.
Following this in-class learning, last week’s event was designed to be adventurous and academic.
“This is designed to be a fun, outdoor, winter activity where kids learn not just how to ice fish, but proper handling and catch-and-release techniques. It’s hands-on,” Cope said.
Fishing rods, tackle and a few warmup shanties were provided by Fish and Game.
The excitement was provided by the fish. Sport Lake is home to coho and chinook salmon, with 6,000 kings being stocked in late 2015 and early 2016. Fish and Game also stocks rainbow trout — 15,000 were released in 2015.
Lacey Mathes, a third-grader from Soldotna Elementary School, was quite serious in her attempt to entice a fish.
“This isn’t my first time,” she said. “My mom taught me how to ice fish and I’ve caught rainbows before. You have to go up and down slowly (with the bait) to get their attention.”
She wasn’t one of the lucky ones who landed a fish, but others did, and they were lunkers.
“One boy yesterday caught two chinooks. One of them was 18 inches long, much larger than the 8- to 9-inch stockables we put in,” Cope said.
Brooklynn Biamonte, a fourth-grader from Nikiski North Star Elementary, also didn’t have much luck, but she did display a sound knowledge of the old piscatorial cliché, saying that a bad day fishing was still better than a good day at school.
“This beats being in the classroom, doing worksheets and working on nouns,” she said.
The next salmon-related activity for the kids will be the final one of the school year — the Kenai Peninsula Salmon Celebration in May.
“That’s their end-of-the year celebration, where they will release the salmon from their classroom tanks (typically into Arc or Centennial Lake), they help us release hatchery-raised rainbow trout into Johnson Lake, and we have numerous hands-on activity booths,” Cope said.
These typically include salmon life-cycle displays, a macroinvertebrate touch tank, information on catch-and-release fishing, spin- and fly-casting practice stations, the salmon “wheel of misfortune,” water quality testing, water and wildlife safety, waterfowl identification, stream-flow demonstrations and many more activities.
For more information about the Salmon in the Classroom program, contact Jenny Cope by email at email@example.com or by calling the Fish and Game office in Soldotna at 262-9368.