It was a little after 9 a.m. Sunday morning on the Kasilof River when Lance Kitchen, a 12-year-old Tustumena Elementary School student, became the envy of every other kid on the water.
"He just got lucky," said fishing buddy B.J. Stecker.
Lance isn't buying it.
"I'm good, they ain't," he said, pointing to Stecker and Cain Carter, the other members of the Tustumena trio sitting aboard the Angler's Lodge guide boat.
Lance had reason to be cocky. After all, he just hooked his first-ever king salmon after less than an hour of fishing the turquoise waters of the Kasilof. However, because the fish was wild, Lance has to let it go. Only hatchery fish, denoted by a clipped adipose fin, can be kept on the Kasilof. Still, he was confident he'd be able to pull another king from the water in the next few minutes.
"I'll catch another one before they do," he said.
The three young anglers came to the river as part of a Kenai River Professional Guide Association event that pairs kids with area fishing guides for a day of fishing and fun. According to KRPGA president Steve McClure, the program now in its fourth year has this year paired nearly 100 kids from area elementary and middle schools with 33 guides.
McClure sat in fellow KRPGA member Greg Brush's drift boat. While Brush pulled away at the oars, McClure kicked back, watching as the kids and their guides waited patiently for another strike.
"They're the future of this fishery," McClure said. "How you're going to keep fishing going is to get the kids involved."
Brush agreed. He said that in the age of Internet, television and video games, it's vital that children are given opportunities to experience the Alaska wilderness.
"It's just a great pastime. We think this is a great way to get our kids away from the TV, away from the Nintendo and expose them to the outdoors," Brush said, watching as the action on the Kasilof unfolded.
The fishing was slow on the Kasilof on Sunday. It's still early in the season and kings are few and far between. Still, a strike was seen here or there, and after a while, more than just Kitchen brought a king to the boat.
One of those was Josh Spindler, a 14-year-old Soldotna Middle School student. Spindler, fishing with guide Monte Roberts of All Alaska Outdoors Lodge, pulled in his first-ever king using a Kwikfish plug. Still basking in the glory of his accomplishment, Spindler didn't have much to say about the fish, other than the obvious.
"It fought hard," he said, smiling.
Spindler's father, Dennis, also was along for the trip. Watching his son catch his first king was a unique thrill, he says.
"Heck yes, this is neat," he said.
Roberts, the guide who put Josh on his king, said being able to give a little back to the community is what the Take a Kid Fishing Day is all about.
"These kids that come, they always seem to have a good time," Roberts said. "It's just a good thing."
In addition to the free day of fishing, Greg Brush pointed out that each participant also got a hat, a new rod and reel and was treated to a barbecue at the end of the day as part of the event. He said by giving away some gear to fish on their own, the guides' association enables the kids to get out on their own and go fishing.
"Get 'em interested and turn 'em loose," he said.
Although the guides' association volunteers its time, Steve McClure said a number of local sponsors all chipped in to help make the day a success.
"We ask (the sponsors) to help, and they just go, 'You bet,'" he said.
As McClure and Brush rowed off the river, both reflected on what the event means to their industry as a whole and the future of fishing in Alaska.
"If our industry is going to survive, we've got to get the kids out here," McClure said.
Brush agreed and said not only do the guides ensure future fishers are interested in the sport, but by holding the event, KRPGA is able to contribute something back into the community as a whole which is what the Take a Kid Fishing Day is really all about.
"It's nice to be able to give something back," he said. "We're interested in the future of our (guide) community, and the future of our kids, so this is a win-win situation. It's just a good event."
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