Never let it be said the Kenai Peninsula College's Kenai Fishing Academy doesn't know how to show someone a good time.
This past weekend several staff members of the academy did just that when they showed one of their alumni a fun-filled weekend of good food, friends and, of course, some fantastic winter fishing.
"I've been to Alaska fishing for kings and reds six times, but always in summer," said Teiichi Watabe. "This (is) my first time in winter."
Watabe is from Tokyo where he works as a state government employee. Much of his work revolves around conservation of nature. In his off time he is an avid stream fisher, often setting his sights on char and related species.
A fresh Kokanee, or land-locked salmon, caught by jigging an artificial egg just off the bottom.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
"Char (are) very small though," said Watabe.
A few years back he decided it was time to up the ante of his piscatorial pursuits. He wanted to go for something big, and they don't come much bigger than the king salmon.
Watabe started searching all the usual places magazines, books and the Internet. He said every source he looked into kept saying the same thing, "Kenai is the best for kings."
So, three years ago he booked his first trip here, and whether it was beginner's luck or just old-fashioned know-how, he did quite well for himself.
Teiichi Watabe holds up his first fish of the day caught on Spirit Lake. Watabe came for the weekend from Tokyo, Japan to try ice fishing for the first time.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
"I caught three kings over 25 pounds," said Watabe. "After that I was addicted to Alaska."
In 2003 he attended and graduated from the Kenai Fishing Academy. Between classmates and instructors, he made a lot of friends during the course.
Watabe continued to stay in contact with them and recently found himself with a little vacation time, so he decided to return to Kenai once again to give ice fishing a try.
He didn't come alone this time either. Watabe brought his 20-year old daughter Aiko with him, and together with Kenai Fishing Academy staff members Gary Turner, David Wartinbee, Dave Atcheson and Valerie Malanaphy, they braved the elements to wet a hook in Spirit Lake.
Gary Turner cleans some freshly caught fish that were later seasoned and then cooked over an open fire.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
These fishing academy folks aren't your run-of-the mill anglers though these people take fishing seriously no matter what time of year it is, and as such they went all out.
They loaded up the snowmachines and caravaned to their predetermined location. "I've fished a number of other spots, but this is my favorite one. I've always caught fish here," said Wartinbee.
Everyone unloaded their gear while Wartinbee cranked up the gas-powered auger and drilled several holes through the thick ice. He then left briefly on snowmachine, and upon his return built a fire on the ice with some downed deadfall he had cut with a chainsaw.
Atcheson and Malanaphy broke out some snacks a few jars of jalapeno flavored salmon, a brick of cheese, crackers and some cold beers to wash it all down.
"I like to think of ice fishing as kid of a picnic," said Atcheson. "It's funner if you make it more of a social event with lots of good people and good food."
Meanwhile, Turner and Atcheson walked Watabe and his daughter through the myriad of baits they had brought. They closely inspected the cocktail shrimp, salmon roe, meal worms, Power Bait and other artificial lures.
Watabe and his daughter chose carefully, but still seemed uncertain if they had made the right choice. They didn't have to wait long to find out.
Within a matter of minutes, Watabe's jigging began to pay off. His rod tip began to twitch with the tell-tale sign that a fish was near, then suddenly the rod bent.
Watabe pulled up hard setting the hook. Holding his tiny rod with both heads, he lifted his arms over his head and a bright silver blur shot up through the hole in the ice.
"Kokanee!" said Wartinbee, referring to the 9-inch land-locked salmon Watabe had landed.
Not long after, Wartinbee himself got one, then Watabe got another, and soon everyone was hauling in fish. Turner got a hawg on the end of his line that almost took his rod. Even a few rainbow trout were landed.
Catching that many fish would probably be enough for some people to call it a good day, but again these are fishing academy folks. They don't just fish, they fish in style.
Turner put down his rod to start gutting everyone's catches, passing each cleaned fish over to Wartinbee, who had brought enough condiments and spices to upstage Emeril Lagasse.
He seasoned each fish, packed them with butter, sprinkled diced onions on top, and then wrapped them in tinfoil before cooking them on the open fire.
"Why have a good time when you can have a great time," said Wartinbee.
The sweet smell of the cooking fish hung heavy in the cold air, and before long the hot meal was ready.
Watabe and his daughter shared the first fish. With eyes wide and mouths watering they opened the steaming foil, revealing the soft pink meat. They each took a bite and then simultaneously smiled from ear to ear.
"Delicious," said Watabe.
After everyone ate, the group did more fishing, but things tapered off as the day went on.
Watabe and his daughter were very pleased with their adventure. "It was worth the trip," he said at day's end. "Many Japanese come to Alaska in winter, but they come to see the Northern Lights. That's good, but I like to do activities. Activities like fishing. That's fun."
The fishing academy staff seemed equaled pleased with how the weekend went.
"It's been a blast," said Malanaphy. "It really shows the fishing academy is way more than fishing. We meet some exciting people from far away. People become friends that keep in touch even after it's over."
Wartinbee said he had a great time too. "I like ice fishing and it's fun to share with people. I'll share with anyone who wants to go."
Turner said it's important to share ice fishing with out-of-state or international visitors like Watabe and his daughter.
"It shows people that winter in Alaska can be a wonderful time. You don't have to hibernate in the house. You can go outdoors. It's very peaceful, beautiful and fun."
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