Editor's note: This is part three of a multi-piece series following Dave Knudsen's class at Kaleidoscope School of Arts Science in Kenai as they study different aspects of the salmon lifecycle through the school year.
"Up and down, one-two-three, and rest," Patti Berkhahn, with the Department of Fish and Game, said as she coached a group of elementary students on Thursday.
Berkhahn sounded like she might have been leading the latest flavor of the month step aerobics class, sans the gym and pumping dance music.
Far from that; she was showing one of the hundreds of students that visited Sport Lake in Soldotna the key to jigging for hungry fish swimming below.
As part of the department's Salmonids in the Classroom Project, about 400 kindergarten through fifth-grade students from as far south as Ninilchik visited the lake to try their luck, and learn about sport fishing practices.
The program starts with egg-takes in October, where students fertilize coho eggs that they bring back to their schools and raise in a tank through the school year. In May they'll release their finned classmates in an area lake.
Along the way, the students learn about the lifecycle of salmon through hands-on activities, including going fishing.
When students clamber off their bus, they meet Berkhahn, the Kenai Peninsula aquatic education fisheries biologist, at the edge of the ice for a quick how-to lesson.
"The first thing we talk about is ice safety," she said. "We buried our augers; it's a good two to two and a half feet thick."
Berkhahn said more 100 holes were sunk into the ice.
She explained to the students that the ice was safe enough to support vehicles, let alone elementary students jumping up and down.
The conversation gets fishy from there. Berkhahn talked about what type of fish the students might catch -- landlocked chinook or rainbow trout -- and what the bag limits are for each species.
She also went over catch-and-release practices.
"You don't want the fish flopping around on the ice because they'll lose their slime layer," she said. "We quizzed them to see what the function of the slime layer is, and they all get it."
The slime cuts down on friction as fish swim, acts as a defensive measure against would-be predators and provides a protective layer against bacterial infection.
Berkhahn then gives the kids a demonstration in how to bait their hooks, set their line to the right depth and jig for a bite.
Of course, some activities are less academic then others.
With the class unleashed, students pick a hole and get to work.
Fishing slowed a bit by the afternoon when classes from Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science arrived.
Students huddled around their holes peering into the depths playing the waiting game. Every few minutes the ice erupted as a student shouted "fish on!"
Upward a silvery chinook would fly, drawing a crowd of excited little anglers every time.
Despite being slow later on, Berkhahn guessed it had been one of the best days they'd had in a few years.
While fishing is popular on the peninsula, to put it lightly, Berkhahn said the experience is still a unique one for many of the kids.
"I ask at the beginning of each session, who's never caught a fish before?" Berkhahn said.
Usually there's only a few in the crowd she said, mostly in the younger grades; but not as many have caught one through the ice.
"I'm sure a lot of these kids have never ice fished before, never even considered it," Berkhahn said. "If we can get them interested, they'll want to take their parents out."
This is a good time of year to get into the sport, and only gets better as spring approaches she said.
Also working out for the event this year were mild temperatures.
Tiana Faumui, a fourth-grader in Knudsen's class, certainly wasn't complaining.
Faumui still hadn't caught a fish as the afternoon wound down, but that didn't bother her.
"I'd rather be here doing this," she said.
What's the saying about a bad of fishing being better then a good day of at work? It must apply to school as well.
Dante Petri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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