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.

Welcome to Alaska. Be prepared to be greeted by the world record halibut when you land. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich
“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.

Taylor’s first day. The Northeast Muldoon Boys and Girls Club is a hub for hundreds of kids each summer. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich
“I was so nervous, I had to keep my arms down because I was sweating profusely!”
Anchorage is a mixing pot of Alaska Natives, Pacific Islanders, military families, and people from all walks of life and ethnicities. With over 100 languages spoken, Alaska’s biggest city tops all the national rankings for public school diversity. Each day we traded basketballs for fishing rods and casting practice in the gym before exploring Anchorage’s urban fisheries. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich
This U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service program introduces youth to safe fishing opportunities near home. They go from not knowing how to hold a fishing rod to developing the skills and confidence necessary to become proficient, life-long anglers. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

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.

Fernando

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.

Fernando caught his first fish less than a mile from the Boys and Girls Club where he spends his summers. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

At first, Fernando didn’t want to go salmon fishing with us.

“They’re too big and I’m small.”
We first convinced him to try his hand at salmon fishing in Ship Creek — Alaska’s most well-known urban fishing spot. Fishing for big fish means big hooks and 4oz weights above flashy spinners and fish roe. He was adamant that we stand next to him in case he caught one. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

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.

Taylor checks a fish trap for baby salmon. Despite flowing by the facility where hundreds of kids spend their summer, many kids didn’t know this creek’s name or that it had fish. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

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.

Fernando caught several pink salmon in Alaska’s Resurrection Creek. Photos: USFWS/Taylor Urlich

JJ

When we first met JJ she would walk around with her headphones on, doing stuff on her phone. At some point, that changed.

JJ explored many lakes and creeks around Anchorage during this summer program.

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?”

JJ’s curious mind shone during fishing outings and she quickly learned the five species of salmon and their life cycle. She was the only one brave enough to get her hands on some salmon a fishermen caught. Once we said it was ok to touch them she began to smile and had a long moment admiring them. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich
JJ came on a total of 11 outings with us—the most of anyone. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Jermon

Jermon (left) with his brother Jakel. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

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.

Even if the kids had gone fishing in the past, not many had ever caught a fish. Jermon couldn’t contain his joy when he caught his first fish ever (left). It also happened to be the very first fish caught this summer. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

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.

Jermon came out on multiple outings with us and was one of our more persistent anglers. His grandma was very appreciative when she picked him up after this trip and he had caught a salmon for dinner. Photo: USFWS/Taylor Urlich

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.

Polaroids captured many firsts this summer. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

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.

Fishing and spending time outdoors helps kids focus in a way that’s good for their brains. Attention restoration theory (so coined by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s) suggests that being in nature helps trigger recovery from directed attention fatigue. Fishing, and the novelty of being in a natural setting, can hold one’s attention without effort. Fernando demonstrates. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

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.

Jakel re-baits his hook with an egg. He developed a healthy expectation that he wasn’t always going to catch a fish and that’s ok. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich
“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.

Most kids wanted to keep and eat their catch. Left: rainbow trout on a stringer (USFWS/Katrina Liebich). Right: A pink salmon destined for lunch.
Reel to meal. We tried a variety of cooking techniques with the kids including pan-fried trout and baked salmon. The kids helped prepare, cook, and serve this meal. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Thank you

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.

Special thanks to Kristi Bihag from the Northeast Muldoon Boys and Girls Club. Every day, she’d drive a van full of rowdy kids to meet us at different fishing spots. At first, she spent most of her time helping us keep the kids in line. We noticed her getting pretty good at hooking bait and untangling lines. Then she bought a fishing license. As the summer progressed and the kids got more self-sufficient, she was fishing right alongside them. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich
2017 Directorate Fellow Taylor Urlich (left) and Cade Terada, an Arctic Youth Ambassador from Dutch Harbor who grew up in a fishing family, spent their summer making fishing more accessible to urban communities in Anchorage whose residents don’t traditionally participate. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

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.

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