NIKISKI - High school science projects have come a long way from baking soda volcanoes and potato-powered clocks, as was evident to those who took part in a recent weekend ice fishing derby in Nikiski.
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Tyler Bethune and Alex Ross, two Nikiski High School students, organized the derby as part of an assignment for their biology class.
"We needed something for a 'Caring for the Kenai' project, and we both like fishing and we both wanted to hold a fishing derby, so we decided to be partners," Ross said.
Just putting on a derby was not enough to meet the requirements, though. Caring for the Kenai is an environmentally focused contest that challenges high school students to answer the question "What can I do, invent, or create to better care for the environment on the Kenai Peninsula?"
Bethune and Ross decided to use the derby to target an invasive species wreaking havoc on native fish populations.
"We decided the derby should focus on reducing the number of northern pike. We chose pike because, while they're fun to fish for, they aren't anything we want here. They're a species that can decimate an ecosystem," Ross said.
With the Swanson River so close by and filled with several species of salmon and trout that would be vulnerable to predatory pike, Stormy Lake seemed like the right location for the event, they said.
"We thought the derby could bring people from around the Kenai and give them knowledge about invasive species, but also let them have a fun, new experience that they wouldn't normally have," Bethune said.
Their project worked out better than even they had thought. By midday Saturday more than 35 people were anxiously angling through pieplate-sized holes in the lake's thick ice.
Connie Thurman of Nikiski was one of those people. She said the derby seemed like the perfect opportunity to try something new.
"I had watched people doing it before and I thought, 'That's something I gotta do one of these days,' and this seemed like it would be a good opportunity to give it a try and support a brilliant idea," she said.
Thurman wasn't the only person on the lake who had never wet a hook in winter.
"I've fished before, but never ice fished, but it's a nice day so here I am," Effie Essex of Nikiski said.
Essex said she wasn't entirely certain she was using the proper technique to lure pike to her cut herring bait.
"I don't have the slightest idea if I'm doing this right, but my husband said to hit the bottom and then jig it, so that's what I'm doing," she said.
As the hours rolled on, Essex never got any hits, but rather than her technique being off, Ross said it was just a slow day of fishing. He said only a few people working some of the reed beds saw any action.
In the end, only one pike was caught, but it was a fairly decent-sized fish, Ross. said
"It was 211/2 inches long and weighed about 4 pounds," he said.
Bethune and Ross said their biology instructor Phil Morin assisted them with developing their idea, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game provided data on pike ecology, and the Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement assisted with the rules and regulations for ice fishing.