Gary Turner got the idea for the Kenai Fishing Academy about 10 years ago from an unlikely source.
Turner, campus director of Kenai Peninsula College, said he nabbed the concept from southern golf academies where students worked on fundamentals in the morning and played a few rounds in the afternoon.
“After fishing in Alaska in various places and having heard people say, ‘Boy, you know, I’ve been coming up here for five years and haven’t been able to catch a king’ or whatever and I was thinking that maybe we needed to try to teach people how to fish,” Turner said.
Turner’s idea — with the help of local fly fishing instructor and author Dave Atcheson and others — eventually formed the fishing academy that this summer will celebrate its 10th anniversary of teaching a wide variety of students the intricacies of fishing the Kenai Peninsula and Cook Inlet.
Traditionally, the 10th wedding anniversary is celebrated with the gift of tin or aluminum and the traditional color is recognized as silver and blue. Sounds a lot like fishing reels, salmon, trout and the Kenai River.
The fishing academy is broken into two courses — fly fishing and bait casting — and each is offered at different times during the summer. Students who usually attend are a mix of young and old, experienced and novice and in-town and out-of-state, Turner said.
One year, he said, an 84-year-old with plenty of state fishing experience took the class. Some students even take the class multiple times, he said.
“It is such a good time,” Turner said. “It is like an alumni group. Fathers bring up sons. We’ve had mothers bring up daughters. Couples that come. Old college buddies.”
John Sciera, of Fayetteville, Ga., has taken the academy five times and both the fly and bait courses. Sciera, 61, said he was very interested in the course’s explanation of “the hydrology and the water in the river, the banks, where the eggs and the fish go and why and how the current flows and where the fish really are, and what are they looking for.”
“I mean, you just don’t get this fishing with granddad,” he said.
Sciera said he is grateful the academy’s instructors are patient and willing to teach.
“I have been fishing for years, but be patient with me because I haven’t had any formal instruction,” he said. “I know how to throw it out there and get a fish, but I don’t know how to do it the right way. So each year you go to learn a little more and sharpen your skills and through repetition you learn more and more.”
The first fishing class was held at the college in the summer of 2003 after Turner and Atcheson wrote the curriculum.
“He said, ‘Yeah, let’s try to run with this,’” Turner said of Atcheson. “He knew a lot of the guides around and I knew some and working with the agencies we put together the curriculum and had our first one that June.”
About two years in, the academy picked up a lot of press and media attention, which lead to four classes per summer, each with 16 students, Atcheson said. Several years in, the academy was able to work through the University of Alaska Anchorage process so students could receive two credits for their efforts.
Since it’s initial boom, Atcheson said attendance has decreased some and the academy currently only offers two courses. But the intense classes that feature a lot of on-the-water time usually sell out as they are now capped at 12 students each, he said.
“People love the class when they do it,” he said.
The fly fishing class, among other things, teaches students about fly selection, knots, leaders, reading the water, techniques for salmon and trout, casting, wildlife habits, history, hydrology, biology and caring for the catch.
The bait casting class, among other things, teaches students about equipment selection, egg curing techniques, lure selection, salmon and halibut characteristics, regulations, lake fishing, king fishing, saltwater trolling and jigging.
Atcheson said the academy has always been divided as such as there is no way one could learn both techniques in one class.
“I think there are a lot of people who have fished their whole life but they haven’t fly fished so they want to learn fly fishing and with fly fishing there is so much to it that even a week-long class you don’t really cover everything,” he said.
In its ten years, the academy has been a good resource for both fishermen and the community, Atcheson said.
“I think it teaches people to be better stewards of the land for sure because there is a conservation aspect to the class, we talk about that a lot and taking care of the resource,” he said. “I think people understand the resource better after they have done the class.”
Looking back on 10 years, Turner said the academy’s future is bright, but he doesn’t expect it to expand any time soon.
“My goal is that we continue doing what we’re doing,” he said. “We really can’t expand. We limit it to 12 students so it is a good, quality program and they get so much one-on-one with people.”
For more information on the Kenai Fishing Academy, visit http://www.kenaifishingacademy.org/
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Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.