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For Alaska College, River's a Classroom

The Kenai Fishing Academy teaches students with little or no experience. The basics include hydrology, filleting and bear safety.

October 09, 2005|Dan Joling | Associated Press Writer

COOPER LANDING, Alaska — Curt Muse stood on the cobbled shore of Quartz Creek, casting a 3-weight fly rod upstream as a dozen middle-age-or-beyond students watched.

The veteran guide spotted a sockeye salmon, red as a fire hydrant, but easy to miss swimming above colored rocks and below a surface rippled like glass on a shower stall.

"You can barely see that fish, and he's red," Muse said. "There could be trout nearby him."

He counseled students to cast first in shallow water rather than splashing to midstream. His made his point the fifth time his nymph drifted down by hooking an 8-inch Dolly Varden, a char found in the same cold streams as trout.

Muse was the day's guest lecturer for the Kenai Fishing Academy, a weeklong class offered four times per summer by Kenai Peninsula College, a branch of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Now in its third year, the school is aimed at fishing novices or anglers new to Alaska who want to avoid learning the traditional way -- reading how-to books, trolling for tips from salesmen at sporting goods stores, pestering friends to accompany them on outings.

The fishing school was the brainchild of Gary Turner, director of the college and an avid fishermen who helps teach classes. Too many people told him, "I've been up here X number of years, and I've never caught a king salmon," Turner said.

"I thought, we need to educate people and teach them how to fish," Turner said. "It just seemed natural."

The college in Kenai, a town of nearly 7,000 about 155 road miles southwest of Anchorage, takes up 900 feet of riverbank on the Kenai River, home to world-class rainbow trout and king, sockeye and silver salmon.

The class is noncredit; fees pay its costs.

"We're trying to push our education mission to meet the avocations of people, or their external interests," Turner said.

Turner turned the idea over to Dave Atcheson, the college's night class coordinator. He wrote a book on Kenai Peninsula fishing and is a former Department of Fish and Game technician who had walked the watershed tagging fish. Atcheson assembled friends, guides and local experts to put on a week's worth of classes and outings.

For about $1,100 -- $300 more with food and housing -- the college offers 20 hours of classroom time with field trips that include flying to a remote lake, an excursion to the ocean or a float trip down the Kenai River. The tuition is in the price range of what booking individual day trips would cost, Atcheson said.

"I think for what they get, it's quite a lot," Atcheson said.

Some students sign up to fill their coolers with fish, but the class is more about learning than catching, he said.

"The idea is to teach people how to fish, but also to teach them all that goes along with being a good steward of the land and resource," Atcheson said.

In the general fishing class, students backtroll for king salmon, bounce herring off the ocean floor for halibut and fling spinners for trout.

In the fly fishing class, students learn the basics of casting and fly selection, then try to catch sockeye salmon, rainbow trout or Dolly Varden in streams, rivers and lakes.

Classroom sessions focus on gear and topics novices may overlook: river hydrology, insect life, filleting fish, cold water survival and bear encounters.

Mike Todd, a surgeon, moved from San Francisco to Anchorage seven years ago. He took both classes with his brother, William Todd-Mancillas.

"I had never gotten out and done this," Todd said as he tied a tapered leader with knots he'd learned in the classroom. "It's such a drag being in Alaska and not knowing how to fish."

His brother, who teaches interpersonal communications at Cal State Chico, cheerfully acknowledged his own lack of skills.

"I know nothing about fishing," Todd-Mancillas said. "I'm starting from the ground up. Even if I retain 20%, that will be infinitely more than I knew before."

Jim Whitehurst, of Clearwater, Fla., retired from the marketing department of Exxon, has fished all over the world.

"I'm retired and lucky enough to have the money to fish and a wife that puts up with me," Whitehurst said. "I'm the king of 'been there, tried that.' "

He tried fishing roadside Alaska streams on his own. When he heard about the class last year, he and a friend signed up for 2005.

"Alaska streams are so different," Whitehurst said. "It all relates to salmon."

Muse showed students how to detect and imitate mayfly nymphs in the creek but told them that Kenai River trout didn't grow to trophy size by eating bugs. When salmon migrate to fresh water, spawn and die, trout and char feast on eggs and bits of carcass that float downriver.

"They'll take salmon eggs over mayflies any day of the year," Muse said.

Several students had fished, but not with a fly rod.

"It's a lot easier than I make it out to be," said Dan Zelenko, who wanted angling skills after retiring to Jackson Hole, Wyo., this year.

"When we got here, it slowed everything down," said his brother, Ron, who lives in Waukegan, Ill.

The Zelenkos expected to be bored by the 20 hours of classroom time. They were pleasantly surprised by their interest in river hydraulics and entomology.

"It's just amazing what goes on in these rivers," Ron Zelenko said.

Their bear lessons came in handy when they flew to Upper Russian Lake. The fishermen split into two parties. The Zelenkos' group that heard a squawk from what sounded like a strange bird. It turned out to be a grizzly cub, which emerged from the forest 50 yards away and started walking toward them.

The fishermen remembered their training from a day before. They bunched together, raised their arms, made noise -- and held their breath as two guides readied shotguns. The bear ambled to within 30 yards, then disappeared back into the forest.

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