As the arctic sun crept over the treeline Saturday morning, Jeremy Sagoonick hovered over several six-inch thick ice holes.
In one hand he gingerly jigged the line, the other was tucked into his pocket in hopes of avoiding the occasional gusts of single digit temperatures.
Under Sagoonick’s feet swam objects of desire for the more than 80 fishermen who signed up for the third annual Island Lake Ice Fishing Tournament benefiting the Nikiski wrestling team.
Those fishermen, like Sagoonick were hunting the biggest rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and some, perhaps, were looking to take home a trophy for the smallest fish category.
However, Sagoonick said he wasn’t much concerned with winning himself. Instead he hoped his daughter, Cora, would take home a prize. Last year, Cora nabbed second place in a tournament with a one-pound rainbow and won a fishing rod and bucket of lures and accessories.
“Just the excitement that maybe she’ll win something, you know,” said Sagoonick, describing why he decided to brave the cold with Cora playing in the snow at his feet. “See the joy on her face. When she won that second place rainbow last year she was pretty happy. She was playing with all of her stuff on the kitchen floor when she got home.”
Cora didn’t have to wait long for excitement to strike, however.
“Grab the rod,” Sagoonick instructed Cora in a calm voice as the rod’s tip bounced excitedly. “Go ahead and jig it, remember how I was showing you earlier? Yeah you have to jig it. Oh, he’s gone. Wonder if he took your bait.”
Sagoonick grew up in a small village 150 miles southeast of Nome near Norton Sound but only did a little ice fishing.
“Right after freeze up, but the rest of the winter is too cold,” he said.
The same isn’t true for fisherman Bob Theisen, who grew up in Northern Minnesota where ice fishing tournaments were big business. Crowds in excess of 10,000 were regular, Theisen said, and fishermen would often compete for big purses and other big prizes.
“It is what we did all winter long,” he said standing on the other side of the lake from where Sagoonick was set up.
Theisen said the fishing was a bit slow, but when the results were tallied up, he landed on second place in the adult division with a two-pound rainbow trout.
“During the winter that’s when people catch all the big ones,” he said speaking of his time in Minnesota. “Here that’s not so true.”
The tournament marked only the second time Theisen had been out that year and he was fishing with his son, Jonah, a freshman at Kenai Central High School.
“It’s alright,” Jonah said of the fishing after lifting his face from his hands.
“Jonah is ready to go home,” Bob said with a laugh.
“No, there is just no fish — patience,” Bob advised.
Just a little closer to the boat ramp was Sandra Wichman, who admitted she was still a beginning ice fisher.
“This is my second year ice fishing and I fell in love with it right away,” she said.
So what keeps her out in such cold, snowy conditions, staring at a thin plastic string?
“Solitude,” she said with a laugh as a snowmachine hummed in the distance. “Except for today, but that’s cool. It’s like I was telling those guys, I want to get out more. Get out and do different things than I usually do.
Even though she’s relatively new to winter fishing, she grew up catching fish on the Kasilof River. And, she can even tell a fish tale like the best of them — one came to mind of a recently caught seven-pound lake trout.
“I got pictures on my phone — I was seeing him under the hole and the water just goes like this,” she said, waiving her hands in the air. “And you are like, ‘Ahh!’ I was thinking, ‘You know, I tied my own lure and put my own swivel on and I should have had my boyfriend re-tie it for me because he is better at it.’
“As soon as he came up out of the hole,” she said, making a loud popping noise, and throwing her hand behind her head. “But I was able to grab him before he went back in.”
Surveying her surroundings, Wichman said there just are not many places in the world with more outdoor winter possibilities than the area where she likes to live.
“I can’t see moving anywhere else,” she said.
At another fishing camp, Colton Rankin, 10, of Nikiski fished with his dad, Matt, and friend James Shaker, 10.
Pointing to two fish covered in snow near their hut, Colton said, “I caught those this morning.”
“Yeah about 9 o’clock, an hour before the derby started,” Matt said with a laugh. “I don’t think they’ll qualify, but we’ll ask.”
Ask the group who is the best fisherman and they’ll all point to Colton. And Colton will raise his hand high in the air with a big grin.
“I’ll agree, he catches more fish than I do,” Matt said.
So what’s his secret?
“Jigging,” Colton said. “And if they don’t like the jig, or if they are all around, just drop down an egg and they will usually grab it. Eggs and jigs.”
Perhaps that was enough of a tip for an eavesdropping dad — Matt later took first place in the adult division with a 3 pound, 8 ounce Dolly Varden.