About 50 feet out on the ice of Homer’s frozen reservoir, dozens of students — from kindergarten to second grade — are bundled up and gathered in twos and threes around cut holes in the ice. They each hold a mini fishing rod, baited with shrimp.
Six year old Solo Sky Frost sits patiently jigging the line as instructed, waiting for a fish.
“I’m trying to ice fish, which I’ve never done before, it’s my first day actually,” he said.
The ice fishing event includes local schools and homeschooling families, and is part of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s annual Salmon in the Classroom program, to teach kids about fish, their varieties, and habitats throughout the year.
“So most of these kids back in their classrooms have aquariums where they’re raising salmon, eggs to fry, and then they’ll release them in the spring,” said Fish and Game sport fish biologist Holly Dixon. “And this is just one of the other events that happens throughout the winter as part of that program.”
Students are fishing for Dolly Varden, which can be found in freshwater lakes like the reservoir, or the open ocean, and can grow up to 30 inches or 27 pounds.
“It’s the middle of the winter, so they are not as actively feeding,” Dixon explained. “But when the kids drop bait down on a jig, it might be the first snack they’ve seen in a while. A lot of the dollies are pretty long and skinny. So I think they can be voracious at times up here. Especially when we show up with a bunch of kids and a bunch of bait.”
Dixon says the outdoor event helps students learn about ice fishing gear, technique and safety, as well as sport fish harvest limits and deciding whether to catch or release a fish.
After about an hour, there are not a lot of bites, and some students leave their rods secured in the snow to run and check on each other, to see who’s caught a fish. There’s also snacks and hot cocoa to help with the waiting.
Erin Pollock is a kindergarten teacher with Fireweed Academy, a Homer-based charter school, one of the classrooms where students are experiencing the life cycle of salmon first-hand.
“In the fall, we go to the Anchor River for a field trip where we actually cut open salmon and we fertilize the eggs with the milt. And then we get to bring the eggs back to our classroom and raise them in a tank,” Pollock said. “So we have eggs that are in the classroom that have hatched into fry. The kids are starting to be able to feed them and they record the temperature in the tank every day. And they’re so excited, they’ve each named one of the fish,” she says laughing.
Pollock says while some students are fishing for the first time, others come from commercial fishing families and are very familiar. Regardless, the learning experience also connects students to the culture and the community.
“A handful, like maybe a third of our families are fishing families, whether they’re gillnetters or seiners, or whatever part it may be in our community,” she said. “And then we have maybe at least half who have no idea that this existed as an option. And even the fishing families didn’t know that you can ice fish here in the winter. I didn’t know that! I’ve been salmon staining for like seven years, and last year was my first year coming to this program. And I was like, ‘What do you mean, there’s fish in the reservoir? I love ice fishing, I had no idea!”
Ryan Lee is a parent volunteer, and says his second grader has been out ocean and river fishing quite a bit. But he says it’s about having fun outside.
“Anytime they’re outside and having fun, that’s learning,” Lee said. “You know, being in nature, keeping themselves busy, just doing active stuff outside. If they catch fish, that’s awesome. And that just adds the excitement to do this again. But you know, like look at these guys over there just making a snow fort. It doesn’t matter if they’re fishing or not, as long as they’re warm and moving around having fun.”
Fish and Game says 675 Kenai Peninsula students participated in two days of ice fishing at Sport Lake in Soldotna and at the Homer Reservoir.
There’s the promise of taking the fish home and cooking it up with families, but today only one Dolly Varden was caught and released. Students will have to hope for more bites another day.