After completing college, it's nice to hang your diploma on the wall. Students of Kenai Peninsula College's Kenai Fishing Academy (KFA) get a chance to hang up a heck of a lot more than a piece of paper.
A trophy king salmon caught in the aquamarine water of the Kenai River or barn door-sized halibut pulled from the depths of Cook Inlet are just a few of the possibilities available to the those enrolled in the only anglers' "college" in Alaska.
KFA is an intensive, one-week curriculum that combines 20 classroom hours of learning fishing techniques from experts with hands-on, on-the-water fishing practice with top Alaska guides and instructors at some of the best fishing spots on the Kenai Peninsula.
The intent of the program is to educate fishers to become more proficient in catching and handling fish and to become better stewards of the environment that supports the resource.
The first of four summer sessions wrapped up last week, and KFA instructors said they were pleased with this year's student body.
"Every class we've had so far has been a great bunch, and this class was no exception. They all were really interested in the classwork and they all were ready to get out there and get going with what they learned," said Dave Atcheson, course instructor and author of "Fishing Alaska's Kenai Peninsula."
Atcheson said this class was a little different than last season's classes. He said in the past, there's often been more of a broad spectrum of people in regard to their fishing experience. However, as opposed to showing up with little or no experience, many in this session had wet a hook before.
"Nearly everyone in this class fished or had fished, but they all wanted to learn how to fish better in Alaska," Atcheson said.
Pete Waldo, a geologist from Texas who recently retired and moved to Sterling, was one of the students interested in getting back into fishing.
"I fished a lot as a kid and into my mid-20s, but not a lot between then and now, so I though this would be a great exposure to the whole ball game," Waldo said.
"There's a lot of different techniques to fishing this area, and there's so many species of salmon and other fish that each require a little different bait, tackle or technique," he said.
"I thought this could not only teach me where to go and what to use, but could put me back on the road to fishing independently.
Another student, Joseph Rosen, a retired FBI employee up from Georgia, said he is an avid and accomplished trout angler at home.
However, he visits the Kenai Peninsula regularly and wanted to learn more about fishing in this area.
"I found the technical fishing instruction very useful," Rosen said. "I didn't understand corkies, spinners and other lures before. But, they made sense of the different rigs. They spelled out the mechanics of how and why they work here.
"I feel more comfortable on my own now especially fishing for kings. On prior trips I wouldn't have felt comfortable without a guide, but now I think I've got the technical skills to wade out and do it myself."
After the students learned about fish characteristics, lure selection, casting techniques, river hydrology and biology, bear safety and other skills, they took to the water to test what they had learned.
Their first field experience involved a day of back-trolling on the Kenai River with Bo's Guide Service.
A few anglers got to feel the full-throttle excitement of battling it out with a big Kenai king.
Tom Darnall, an angler down from Eagle River, was surprised when his rod started to bend.
"I thought it was just hung up at first," he said. To be on the safe side, though, Darnall set the hook and sure enough, there was a fish on.
"I thought it was a little one at first because it just didn't seem like it was fighting hard for a big fish," Darnall said. That was because the king had been swimming toward the boat, but once it changed direction, Darnall started to reconsider the size of the fish as he kept a white-knuckled grip on his rod.
Students enrolled in the Kenai Peninsula College Fishing Academy banter between their build boats June 23 while back-trolling down the Kenai River.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
"On the second run I started thinking maybe it was a little larger," he said.
Darnall played the fish for quite a while to fatigue it enough to get it near the boat. He was constantly cranking in line only to have it stripped back out as the fish dove on another reel-sizzling run.
Halfway through the fight the fish broke the surface, revealing its true size. It was a big, thick, chrome-colored fish hooked right in the corner of the mouth.
"When it broke the surface I knew it was big," Darnall said.
After getting it in the net, guide Nate Morris measured and remeasured the salmon to ensure it was legal to bring in the boat. At 42 inches, and just under the slot limit, it was a keeper.
The king ended up weighing in at 36 pounds. Definitely not as big as they come in the Kenai, but more than big enough for Darnall to be able to brag about it at home.
He was excited about his catch but said even without it, he thought the class was worth the time and money spent.
"To tell you the truth, it's all been good," he said. "The class was a real worthwhile endeavor."
He wasn't the only one to catch a fish that day. Jim Wertze from Michigan landed a 24-pound king that "fought to the bitter end," he said.
Noelle Verba of Sterling caught a small but tenacious 11-pound king.
"I'm happy with my catch no matter what the size, because I've been trying to catch a king for years," she said.
The day wrapped up without everyone going home with a fish, but the students had more chances throughout the week. They flew across Cook Inlet and fished for reds and trout in Wolverine Creek.
After returning to town, a few gung-ho anglers went up to the Russian River and pulled in a few more fish.
The week wound down with a bit of flat fishing out on Cook Inlet, where every student caught their limit of halibut many in the 40- to 60-pound range.
Another bait and spin casting session begins Sunday and runs through the July 9. In August there will be two fly fishing sessions: one running Aug. 1 through 6 and another from Aug. 15 to 20.
For more information, or to sign up for any on these sessions, contact KFA at 262-0300.
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