Matluna Christensen grew up fishing for smelt through the ice of the Ugashik River on the Alaska Peninsula. Those were good times, fond memories from her childhood in rural Alaska.
Now that Christensen has kids of her own, the Kenai mom wants to pass on the ice-fishing tradition. So on a recent weekend, with the temperature hovering around zero and a steady breeze pushing the wind-chill even lower, Christensen was standing on Sport Lake near Soldotna, sharing a hole in the ice with her 4-year-old daughter, Synder Calderon.
Christensen keeps it simple. A stick of scrap wood, about 18-inches long and thin enough to fit comfortably in the grip of a gloved hand, serves as a pole. Fishing line wrapped around the end of the stick eliminates the need for a reel. At the end of the line is a hook and single salmon egg.
She rhythmically jerks the homemade fishing pole up then lowers it down, allowing the bait to settle to the lake bottom about 10 feet below.
What's the key to catching fish?
"Jig," she says, erupting into the hearty laugh of someone who knows she isn't betraying any secrets. "That's the technique."
Christensen typically gets out several times a month during the winter, but this is her first outing of this season. She likes to fish Island Lake in Nikiski because of its big rainbow trout, but decided to try Sport Lake today because of its kid-friendly reputation. The fish are usually small, says Christensen, but they're plentiful, thanks to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's stocking program.
"Usually we're in here 10 minutes and out with our limit," she says.
Lines have been in the water for about 30 minutes today and so far no bites. Christensen says the fishing is usually better in the early morning and suspects that an afternoon start might be to blame for the poor fishing. She'll give it another 30 minutes.
But the kids start complaining of cold hands, the hot chocolate has been consumed and Synder starts to cry. A few minutes later, the family is loaded in the Dodge minivan and they're driving off the lake.
About 75 yards away, Phillip Gonzales and Andrew Keeton are having a little more luck, but not much. They've been fishing for about three hours and have pulled up a couple rainbow trout, both around 12 inches.
The fishing may not be hot, but at least the pair is staying warm. Inside their ice-fishing tent with the portable heater cranking, Gonzales estimates the temperature reached a balmy 60 degrees before the heater died about an hour ago. It's still reasonably warm inside and the two have no plans to leave soon.
Gonzales is a regular on the Peninsula's frozen lakes, getting out a couple times a week throughout the winter. He's fishing Sport Lake today because he wanted to introduce Keeton, who moved to Soldotna from Kentucky eight months ago, to the sport. One of Gonzales' favorite spots is Hidden Lake, known for big lake trout. A couple weeks ago he caught an 8-pounder.
Like many ice fishing enthusiasts, he's looking forward to the Trustworthy ice fishing derby that runs from Feb. 1 through Feb. 28. He didn't catch any prize winners, but does have a good story about one that got away.
The competition promises to be tough again this year. Last year, more than 1,000 anglers participated in the derby, according to Trustworthy's Dawn Nushart. She expects about the same number of entrants this year.
To enter the derby, anglers are required to sign up at the Trustworthy store in Soldotna before heading out to fish. There is no entrance fee, Nushart says. Prizes are given out for a variety of categories. There are separate divisions for kids and women.
As part of the derby, Trustworthy also sponsors an ice-fishing day for families on Feb. 5 on Sport Lake. In addition to fishing, there will be a bonfire on the ice, hot dogs, hot drinks and an underwater camera that lets kids watch fish swim by.
"It's a real fun thing," says Nushart.
Last year, Larry Wall caught the biggest fish of the derby, a 12.4-pound lake trout. Christine Cunningham won the "Straight Flush" division, weighing in a rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, kokanee, lake trout and pike for a total of 10.19 pounds.
Even more impressive was Nicholas McConnell, 6 years old at the time. His five-fish total had a combined weight of 18.6 pounds.
Nushart says the fishing reports from anglers lately have been mixed.
"I've had guys coming in and some saying they're catching fish and some saying they're having no luck at all," says Nushart.
Another regular in the derby is 11-year-old Timmy Blakely. He caught the largest lake trout in the kids division last year.
"He's got a room full of trophies," says his dad, Shane Blakely. "He's been fishing since he was a baby. I've been taking him in his car seat since just after he was born."
Shane Blakely is an avid ice fisherman, too. He started fishing local lakes when he was 12 and has tromped all over the central Peninsula in search of fish. He estimates he fishes 60-100 times during the winter, although this winter he's only been out a couple times.
In the summer, Blakely works as a fishing guide for halibut and salmon. During winter he does construction. He's hoping to supplement his off-season income as an ice fishing guide.
"I study all my fish and know what they do," he says. "I think it's important to know your prey."
Blakely has a couple pieces of advice for novice ice anglers. First, anglers need to be up early and on the ice before sunrise. Afternoon anglers are not nearly as successful, he says.
"The big fish tend to be predators. And predators, like a wolf, look for their prey in the dark," Blakely says.
His other piece of advice is to "stay after it."
"A friend of mine has been fishing Hidden Lake for five years and has never caught a fish there," he says.
As always, anglers should be careful when walking or driving on frozen lakes. Even lakes that appear to be frozen solid can have areas of thin ice.
Also, anglers need to remember that the new year requires a 2011 fishing license.
Tony Lewis is an avid fisherman who lives in Kenai.
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