It had been a grueling though breathtakingly beautiful afternoon, skiing, breaking trail for nearly six hours in order to reach a remote Kenai National Wildlife Refuge cabin. Though I awoke the next morning slightly sore from hauling a sled piled high with gear, it was too glorious a day not to partake in a leisurely New Year’s ski. It would also, I hoped, free my tight joints and loosen those overworked muscles. Heading back to the cabin I heard something break the silence — the muffled drone of a low flying plane as it made its way over a ridge and began scouting the lake.
At first I wondered who might be intruding upon my hard-earned solitude but was pleasantly surprised upon recognizing the aircraft. It was my friend Dave Wartinbee, coming in for a landing. I should have known. By the time I reached him he was already out of the plane and drilling holes in the ice, in the process of combining two of his favorite pastimes, flying and ice fishing.
I have to admit, it was difficult to watch as his line went tight and he pulled that first hefty rainbow out of the dark netherworld beneath the ice. He had plenty of extra gear, if only I’d known he was coming. If I had, I certainly would have purchased my 2017 fishing license and could have joined him. Seeing him, however, has whetted my appetite, and I have, since returning home, bought my license and sorted my gear. As an added incentive I also plan to partake in Soldotna Trustworthy’s 20th annual ice fishing derby, which will run the entire month of February.
“We always look forward to this time of year,” said Scott Miller, owner of Soldotna Trustworthy, explaining that the derby has actually gone on for 27 years, though 20 years in its current form. “The first seven years,” he explained, “it was simply the biggest ten fish, so we had a pike and nine lake trout.” After talking to a fishing club in Minnesota and getting pointers from them, they split the derby into divisions. Since that time the format has further evolved, transforming into the community-wide event it is today.
Currently, along with an adult division, there is a children’s division, for those under 12 years old. There’s also a “minnows” division, which is children under 6, all of whom receive a prize for their catch. “Each year,” says Miller, “more people join. We have folks come down from the Mat-Su Valley, and several groups regularly drive up from Homer. We’ve also had a lot of individuals and organizations come forward to help sponsor the event.” The local Masonic Lodge and the Alaska State Troopers, for instance, have donated games and bicycles, things kids would like, for the minnows division. Many gear manufacturers have also stepped up to offer prizes as well. As an added bonus, the winners of each division also receive a beautiful handcrafted trophy, made by professional carver John Iverson.
If that isn’t enough, the totally obsessed ice fisher has the opportunity to compete in the “Flush Division,” which can be entered by catching a Kokanee, rainbow trout, pike and Dolly. The very skilled or lucky may even try for a “Royal Flush,” in which you must add a whitefish, grayling, and burbot to that list. “Believe it or not,” says Miller, “on many years we actually have anglers who catch all of those.” The only rules are that the fish must be caught on the Kenai Peninsula and through the ice.
The largest fish entered in last year’s derby was a 10-pound lake trout, and Miller reports he always sees some surprises, such as the 4-pound landlocked silver salmon someone brought in. While there are nominal prizes for the largest catch of each species, a change they’ve made in recent years is to enter the anglers who catch those fish in drawings for the grand prizes, which usually include augers, underwater cameras, and fishing tents. “We did that,” explains Miller, “for the sake of conservation, so that people wouldn’t hammer one species.” The angler who lands the largest grayling, for example, is as likely to win one of the big prizes as the angler bringing in a lake trout.
Getting started ice fishing is not expensive. Ice fishing rods, says Miller, range in price from $4.00 to $60, and the most basic hand augers are available for as little as $39. Most ice fishers use a variety of jigs or bait such as salmon eggs, shrimp or herring. The only other piece of equipment that is absolutely necessary is a scoop, to keep your hole clear of ice.
Of course, as fishers get out and experience the sport further, there is always room for expansion. Power augers, for instance, though heavy to tote along, make life much easier, especially on thick ice. They run in cost between $275 and $500. Most ice anglers have some sort of sled to haul their gear. Many carry an insulated bucket that they both stash gear in and use as a cushioned seat when there isn’t room to bring along a folding chair. There are also a wide variety of ice shelters—tents, really—that are designed to be set up in only a matter of minutes. When equipped with a propane heater, they are cozy fishing spots on windy and excessively chilly days.
“We also have rental gear,” says Miller, “as well as a limited supply of gear we loan out, free of charge. If a family comes in, for instance, and they don’t think they can afford it, all they need to do is talk to us, we’ll make it happen. We want to get the kids out there. That’s our main objective.”
And the kids won’t be the only ones out. I’m looking forward to participating, and hope to win a prize or two myself (actually, I have my eye on one of those fancy underwater cameras), but win or not, I will come out ahead simply by getting out and enjoying the experience.
Dave Atcheson’s latest book, “Dead Reckoning: Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas,” will be released in paperback in March. He is also the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” and National Geographic’s “Hidden Alaska: Bristol Bay and Beyond.” For more information: www.daveatcheson.com.