Peninsula high school students were greeted by a light breeze, clear blue skies, and the warm rays of the sun, despite the below freezing temperatures during last Sunday's Ice Fishing Derby at Johnson Lake in Kasilof.
Most people are familiar with the world class angling opportunities that abound in Alaska during the summer, but relatively few take advantage of winter fishing fun and adventure.
"That's what it's about -- having fun," said David Justice, a substitute teacher for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and one of the people responsible for organizing the event.
"These kids are just a bunch of guys who like to fish," said Justice. "We'll give out prizes for the biggest fish caught and the most fish caught, but there's no entry fee to the derby."
The prizes were donated from a local business that wished to remain anonymous. They included a hand auger for drilling holes in the ice, two ice fishing rods and reels, a tip up (which is a signaling device that lets the angler know a fish is on), and a dozen jars of Berkeley power bait.
"I think it gives the kids something good to do in winter," said Justice in regards to why he organized the event with fellow teachers Doug Gordon and Matt Widaman.
Michael Skinner, sophomore from Skyview High School, wets a hook in a hole that had just been augured. The ice was 14 inches thick in most places the boys fished.
"I like fishing and this is just another way to do it," said Blaine Johnson, a Soldotna High School senior and angler in the derby.
Johnson has lived in Sterling his entire life and grew up ice fishing area lakes. He tries to get out on the frozen water every weekend.
"I usually fish Hidden Lake and do pretty good," said Johnson.
Last year while ice fishing, he caught a trout that weighed more than six pounds. It was his biggest winter catch to date.
"Besides, I had to drag these two out of bed," Johnson said referring to his fishing chums Oliver Murray and Jerad "Florida" Ison, both Soldotna High School seniors.
"I've been ice fishing three times and yet to catch anything," said Murray while skeptically peering into his hole in the ice.
His friend Ison, moved to Alaska last May. He had previously lived in the sunshine state for most of his life, hence the nickname "Florida." Sunday was the his first time ice fishing.
"I always wanted to do it," said Ison. "So far, it's off to a slow start though."
He hadn't had a nibble all morning despite being out before sunrise. He remained hopeful, though, and when asked to sum up his feelings about the the contrast between Florida and Alaska, he did so eloquently with the brief statement, "It's cold!"
Across the ice, roughly 50 yards away, some of the other derby competitors weren't faring much better. However, not catching fish didn't curb their optimism.
"I could fish all day," said Michael Skinner, a Skyview High School sophomore. He liked being out in nature on the crisp winter day. Not one to give up easily, Skinner was already asking Justice if they could stay out longer after some of the other boys had left to give a few other lakes in the area a try.
His friend Jason Smith was eager to stay at it as well.
"I still feel like the fish will come," said Smith while jigging his bait of cut shrimp.
Smith had ice fished one time prior to the derby, but chalk it up to beginners luck, he landed a rainbow trout that first time out.
Smith had been caught off guard earlier in the morning by the sounds of the ice expanding.
The "poom, poom, poom" sounded like the ricochet of gun fire on the other side of the lake, but as it moved to the end of the lake where the derby was being held, the loud thunderous cracking made a few of the novices jittery.
"I'm getting a little nervous here," said Smith after a particularly loud succession of cracking that caused water to rise though his hole in the ice. "Are you sure it's still safe to be out here?"
Justice calmed his nerves with a simple analogy to an experience many of us have had.
"It's like when you put a can of pop in the freezer and then forget about it. You come back later and it's exploded because it expanded as it froze. That's the same principle at work here. That sound is a good thing," informed Justice.
This reassured the boys and let them get back to fishing with peace of mind.
Unfortunately, the derby wound down without much success. Only two fish were caught, but neither was big enough to keep.
As a result Justice evenly distributed prizes to the boys that stuck it out until the end. He held onto the auger with the intention that this weekend they would all try again, but on a different lake in hopes of better luck -- possible lakes are Egumen or Watson, which are both out past Sterling.
All boys seemed in agreement that the idea was a good one and looked forward to more fishing next weekend.
A few of the boys are also signed up for the Soldotna Trustworthy Hardware ice fishing derby.
Competitors that sign up in advance can enter fish caught in a wide variety of categories including smallest fish, ugliest fish, and biggest fish for every species.
The Trustworthy derby has an adult and kids under-12 division. The contest runs through the month of February and prizes will be given to the winners.
Prizes include augers, rods and reels, and a year's subscription to Fish Alaska magazine, as well as many other fishing related items.
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