Hooked: Summer of Firsts
Bringing fishing to urban Alaska kids
First time to Alaska
Taylor came to us from literally the driest place in the US — Death Valley. Unless you have a penchant for pupfish it’s probably not the first place you’d envision finding a die-hard fish nerd with a passion for education. He was on his way to Alaska to make fishing more accessible to urban kids from mostly non-fishing families.
“Upon arriving I instantly realized that fish are more than just a resource; they are culturally and economically significant, and a true way of life for many Alaskans.”
The significance of fish here in Alaska is absolutely real. But for all the people who live to fish, there are many more who don’t. Youth in particular face many barriers to building connections with the fish and wildlife right in their own backyards. Alaska’s urban youth are no exception. Like Anyplace, USA, the kids we encounter in Anchorage (pop. 300K) spend a lot of time indoors and on screens. Many haven’t ever fished or stepped foot in creeks that literally run right by their schools and homes.
First day on the job
Walking into a room full of strangers can be intimidating. When those strangers are kids, everything is amplified —enthusiasm, volume, energy, raw honesty, emotions. And, mostly, the unknown! You never quite know how it’s going to go. Taylor had 11 weeks to hook Anchorage kids on fishing.
“I was so nervous, I had to keep my arms down because I was sweating profusely!”
The nearly 100 kids that participated spent over 1,000 hours with us this summer and we got to know a few of them pretty well.
We are certain of two things: Fernando likes ninjas and we hooked him on fishing June 7, 2017. He had two firsts that day: picking up a rod and reel and catching a fish — a rainbow trout that was closely scrutinized by 19 other kids.
At first, Fernando didn’t want to go salmon fishing with us.
“They’re too big and I’m small.”
Fernando always had to be first at everything — first to get a rod, first to get bait, first to fish from the dock, and first to catch something.
In all, Fernando clocked over 50 hours fishing with us over the summer at many different locations, all of which were firsts for him. He turned into quite a devoted angler and caught a lot of fish, including his first salmon.
When we first met JJ she would walk around with her headphones on, doing stuff on her phone. At some point, that changed.
Despite fishing with us many times and only catching a couple fish, JJ continued to take full advantage of her time spent outdoors. When she wasn’t fishing, she was helping her peers untangle line and tie on swivels, or trying to catch sticklebacks. This incredibly bright and observant young lady would pepper us and volunteers with questions: “Do boy ducks have the single blue feather or do girls have it too?” “What’s a non-profit organization?”
Born and raised in Anchorage, 12-year-old Jermon had never caught a fish before. That would quickly change — when the other kids would start exploring the surrounding woods and wildlife, Jermon would keep fishing and was usually successful. Always wanting to learn and share new skills, he also stood out as a wonderful mentor to the other kids.
We knew Jermon was hooked when he started collecting souvenirs from each fishing trip, whether it was a lure or a broken bobber or trash line we found at the lake. He would carefully store each one in the different pages of his tackle binder.
When a seasonal youth program comes to an end it’s hard to say goodbye, especially to kids like Jermon. Upon learning that Taylor’s fellowship was coming to an end and he’d be returning home soon, Jermon wanted to know the minimum worker age in Arizona so that he could continue spending time with him.
It’s not just about the fish
Fishing is so much more than catching a fish. It’s about being outside and strengthening friendships. It’s about de-stressing and learning patience. Teamwork. Building confidence around a developing skill set.
There was often only one or two adult volunteers, so if a tangled mess occurred, the kids quickly learned they had to fix it themselves if they didn’t want to wait for help. It was in these moments that they learned to rely on one another for help.
“I’ve learned that you have to wait and be patient because the fish are there but they’re debating if they’re hungry or not”
It also ended up being about food. With no lunch program in place, donated snacks were essential about half-way through each day. The vast majority of kids wanted to keep their catch. This allowed them (or their dogs, as a few kids mentioned) to have a high-quality meal for dinner that night which may not have happened otherwise. They had a full circle experience, from learning fishing fundamentals, to catching fish, to eating the fish.
Partners and volunteers make this program possible. Thank you to the Northeast Muldoon and Spenard Boys and Girls Clubs staff, Alaska Geographic, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Sport Fish front desk staff, Alaska Department of Natural Resources “Kids Don’t Float” program staff, and the many individuals that volunteered their time and donated snacks.
Katrina Liebich is based in Anchorage and has served in her current position as the Alaska Fisheries Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service since 2010. If you are interested in helping with this program please contact her: Katrina_Liebich@fws.gov/(907) 786–3637
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.