The 48 students from Soldotna Middle School who spent Sunday fishing on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers may not realize it now, but they had a valuable educational experience -- and they didn't even have to set foot in a classroom.
"It was more than just a day out fishing," said Adam Reid, a guide who also teaches in the Anchorage School District. "There were a lot of new experiences for them. You can take the stuff they learn in the classroom and make it relevant. I have bird and wildlife identification cards, and I carry two sets of binoculars. We saw lots of birds and some moose. There's lots of stuff floating down the river, so we talked about what that was and where it came from."
Those students were taking part in a "Take a Kid Fishing Day," put on by the Kenai River Professional Guide Association. The event involved a breakfast at the school sponsored by McDonald's, a day of fishing with a guide on one of the two rivers, a tour of the facilities at Custom Seafood Processors, and a barbecue at Harry Gaines Kenai River Fishing.
Other sponsors included the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, Fred Meyer and Coca-Cola.
All that a Soldotna Middle School student had to do to be able to participate was come to school, behave and get all his or her homework in on time. Good citizenship earns students gold cards in the school's Project Spartan, and three gold cards secured a spot on a boat for the day.
The morning started out slow on the Kenai River -- the biggest buzz was about the monster hooligan a student reeled in, but by the end of the day, about a dozen fish were on display at Custom Seafood Processors, including the 44.1-pounder that won honors as the big fish of the day.
Students caught-and-released Dolly Varden, rainbow trout and a steelhead on the Kasilof River, and seventh-grader Matthew Madsen even caught a flounder.
And the best part of the day?
"That we got to go fishing," said eighth-grader Nathan Smith after his drift boat trip down the Kasilof River. Smith caught two kings on his float and released one.
"This is a really neat program," Nathan's father Duane said. "I hope they can keep it up."
Each student participant brought along a parent -- one of the goals for the day was to do something that involved the whole family -- and about 30 guides volunteered their services, thanks to a waiver from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources allowing guide boats on the Kenai River on a Sunday specifically for this event.
Soldotna Middle School Prin-cipal Lee Young, a guide on the river during the summer months, had other goals in mind when he floated the idea to the guide association. He wanted it to be a reward for his students for all the hard work they've put in over the course of the school year, and if a few conversations turned to the environment, management of the fishery or the various aspects of guiding on the river, so much the better.
"When we were in school, they called them junior highs. Now, they've switched to middle schools," Young said. "There's really a philosophical difference between a middle school and a junior high. Middle school is more of an exploratory curriculum, where you want to expose a student to a wide variety of things. Fishing and the outdoors are certainly some of those things, and this program supports that philosophy."
The guide association encouraged catch-and-release fishing, posting rewards for students who let fish go, and Reid said his boat got a lesson in conservation with the one fish they kept.
"We didn't have a bite all day, and then about 2:20, just when we were getting ready to leave, we managed to get a fish. It was the young man's first king," Reid said. "It's amazing that some of these kids have lived along the river for so long, and they've never been out fishing on it. We talked about conservation -- the fish we killed was bleeding, and it was a male, so it was a good first fish."
Guide association president Joe Connors said the guides enjoyed the day as much as the students.
"A half-dozen guides have already told me they want to do it again," Connors said. "I've been a guide for 27 years, and I'm tickled pink."
"I think it's wonderful," said Susie Lee, who accompanied her son Josh on the trip. "I wish all the kids could take advantage. It was nice of the guides to get together and donate their time, too."
Preliminary plans are already in the works for next year. The guide association has drawn up a proposal for the Board of Fisheries to set aside two Sundays in May for guides to take different community groups -- more students, or senior groups, veterans groups, etc. -- out on the river. The proposal will go before the board in February 2002.
"The state recognizes the value in taking students fishing," Young said. "With the right leadership, we can expand to other schools, but it takes coordination. We don't want to grow too fast. Whatever we do, we want to do it right."
Reid was impressed with the cooperation between government agencies, the guide and sportfishing associations and the businesses that donated their time and energy to make the event work.
"When it comes to kids, people bend over backward," Reid said. "Ultimately, that's going to help the resource. You need to start them when they're young."
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