Fish U: Aquatic Education in Alaska

By Shann Paul Jones

 “It doesn’t matter if you believe in eating every fish that you catch or releasing all of them; I think we can all agree that wanton waste is a despicable practice,” said Shann Paul Jones, University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Instructor of Outdoor Education as he introduces the fish-preservation section of his Alaska fly-fishing class. “On Memorial Day weekend right out here on campus at Ballaine Lake, I saw eight dead rainbows in a plastic bag. That puts a black mark on our sport, and that is why we are here today. I want you to leave here with the knowledge and skills to take a fish and, if you choose, turn it into dinner.”

This UAF class introduces students to the art and science of fly-fishing and provides participants with the necessary knowledge to make educated fly tackle selections. Students also learn how use a fly rod to place a fly with pinpoint accuracy, tie fishing knots, construct their own flies, and, most importantly, practice catching fish on a fly rod.  Scientific information on Alaska freshwater fish, habitat, entomology, and stream ecology are covered in the context of practical fishing advice.

Jones has worked tirelessly, growing this nationally recognized sport-fishing education program from 52 registrations in 2001 to nearly 200 last year while increasing the total offering of UAF and collaborative programs from 5 to 12.  His activity was rewarded as UAF garnered ‘Honorable Mention’ in a Fly Rod and Reel July 2005 article entitled “American’s Top Ten Fly-Fishing Colleges.”  And as that article helped prove, most of Alaska’s colleges and universities offer some sort of sport-fishing workshops and classes. 

Sport fishing, typically learned in solo practice or in a variety of one-on-one scenarios, has become a positive part of many collegiate or university curriculums. It’s always been a rewarding lifetime, outdoor activity that is now increasing in popularity with university students across the nation. It’s also popular with educators: There are no negatives to sport fishing, only positive rewards, and it is beneficial to everyone whom it touches, whether the individual student, his or her family, friends, businesses or other professional contacts. Additionally, anglers tend to be supporters of wildlife, fisheries and the environment as well as proponents of clean water, fresh air and the wise use of natural resources.

Sport fishing is “gender neutral;” it is equally beneficial to males and females. It is not age specific and is suited to young and old alike. The sport strives to be non-consumptive, non-combative, and to teach good ethics, integrity and strength of character, and finally, it binds students together in a healthy, productive outdoor activity, which builds upon leadership and teamwork in life. Everything higher education should be.

Offering non-credit sport fishing or other recreational programs at the post-secondary level presents many advantages for instructors and administration.  First, it allows faculty to be free to create programs that match the demands of the community. Also, it allows administrators to easily cancel non-productive classes, and add extra sessions of more popular ones. In addition, workshop and short course programs can more easily involve families and children thus providing a valuable public service.

To get his program started, Jones first went to Jackie Hendrix, then the UAF Summer Session director with a dream for a Fundamentals of Fly-fishing class in 2001. He was told he had one year to put 14 students in the class to pay his salary. After two successful summers, the program was relocated to the UAF College of Liberal Arts (CLA) and expanded to the fall and spring semesters with a second class, Introductory Fly Casting & Fly Tying.  In fall 2004, the program was moved to UAF’s Tanana Valley Campus and a third for-credit class, Intermediate Fly-fishing and Tying (now renamed Alaskan Fly-fishing & Tying) was offered. Also during 2004 the summer class, Fundamentals of Fly-fishing, was reworked into the Fly-fishing Weekend.  Most importantly, these revisions have garnered Jones accolades from his students.

“This was a well-presented, humorous, very informative presentation for the beginner to fly fishing.  I would recommend it highly to persons desiring to get a lot of useful information on how to do it”, said Merritt Helfferich of Fairbanks regarding his experience during UAF’s 2005 Fly-fishing Weekend.

“He has worked very hard in putting this course (Alaska Fly-fishing & Tying) together; I have taken Master's (level) courses that were far less organized. I am impressed,” added Major John Woyte of Nome.

Jones strives to develop one new class a year and looks for ways to collaborate with other agencies.  Past projects have included Becoming an Outdoors-Woman and Adult/Child Fly Tying with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). These offerings are often sold out with people asking to be put on a wait list just in case there is a cancellation.

In speaking about the Fairbanks Women’s Fly Fishing Workshop offered annually by Jones in cooperation with ADF&G and the Hunter Heritage Foundation, Karen Gordon said, “I gained lots of info and more importantly, confidence.”

Debra Mutchler of Salcha added, “The experience was very worthwhile. I learned exactly what I came for—to handle a fly rod, make the proper knots and information on fish habitat. I would definitely suggest anyone not experienced in fly fishing take this course.”

Jones cannot take all of the credit, however. Beyond most Alaskans’ general interest in the outdoors, and specifically, angling, he has additional advantages that make his colleagues in the Lower 48 envious. For one, there’s Ballaine Lake right on the UAF campus, stocked with 1,000 rainbow trout three times annually by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Then there’s the lower Chena River, which flows through the middle of downtown Fairbanks and is chocked full of Arctic grayling from April through early October. The Chena River is a catch-and-release fishery for grayling, providing UAF sport fishing students ample opportunities to hone their newly acquired fly-fishing skills. The Fairbanks-North Star Borough (FNSB) Parks and Recreation manages two shoreline parks that Jones uses to teach fly casting and fishing techniques. These parks are a mere 15 minutes drive from the UAF campus. And lastly, from mid-April until mid-September, Interior Alaska experiences long daylight hours, allowing Jones to teach in the field until late in the evening.

 

The Next Step—University of Alaska’s Science-Based Sport Fishing Class

From his 30 years of fly-fishing work, Jones noticed that sport-fishing instruction at all educational levels is delivered in one of three ways: recreation education, conservation education, or cultural education. At the same time, he also observed that science outreach is delivered as straight science. Therefore he began to ask, “Why not combine the best aspects of fishing education and science education into an effective, stable and popular program?”

In summer 2005, Jones unveiled his fourth UAF for-credit sport fishing class, The Science of Fly Fishing at Denali National Park and Preserve.  From what started as a telephone conversation between UAF Summer Sessions and the Denali Institute, Jones developed and delivered this pilot program with the cooperation of the Alaska Natural History Institute’s Murie Science and Learning Center (MSLC) at Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. This was not only to be an outdoor recreation activity, this was Jones’ attempt to marry it with adult science education that could be taken a non-credit or as a 500-Level (graduate level) for K-12 educator training.

Of the 11 people enrolled in the 2005 Denali pilot program, 10 students were non-credit and one took the class for UAF continuing K-12 educator professional development. Jones observed that casting proficiency among most participants increased markedly. The MSLC staff was pleased enough though to renew this offering for 2006.  Both the instructor and MSLC staff agreed that a few changes needed to be made.

MSLC staff requested a re-tooled curriculum with more hands-on science. Jones wanted the course moved to a later timeframe in the summer to allow fish that seasonally migrate into small alpine streams time to get to their summer feeding grounds before the class occurs. Another change made was to offer teacher continuing-education credit through the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) rather than UAF. The 10 students who participated in the revamped 2006 workshop held June 30 - July 2 praised the program.

“It was a fun class.  Shann has a wealth of knowledge and touches a variety of information from stream ecology, fish identification, fish cleaning, cooking, canning, choosing flies, and the physics of fly fishing,” said Rebecca Clement of Anchorage.

“The course was more than paid for during first night of the course,” added Dave Sears of Girdwood. 

Jan Hnlincka of Nenana agreed, “This course was exactly what I had hoped for as a novice: high interest level, hands-on instruction, (with an) interesting, humorous instructor.”

For more information about University of Alaska sport fishing education programs or to arrange for a class in your Alaskan community, email Shann Jones at flyfishing@alaska.edu or call (907) 474-7790.

Shann Paul Jones is an Instructor of Outdoor Activities with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Tanana Valley Campus Recreation Program where he specializes in adult outdoor education/recreation program development and delivery. Since 2001, he’s offered over 60 post-secondary level outdoor education/recreation clinics, workshops, classes and community outreach events.

SIDEBARS: Continuing Education

Prior to developing the Fundamentals of Fly-fishing course at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2001, Jones began researching other North American post-secondary institutions that offered fly-fishing as a credit course. What he discovered was that there were many different program durations, credit options and delivery methods. During the ensuing four years, he found over 125 North American colleges and universities offering sport fishing classes or courses. After reviewing the programs, he discovered they mostly fell into three main categories:  non-credit short courses and workshops; general-education sport-fishing programs like those offered in physical education or recreation programs; and sport-fishing classes that are linked to outdoor education, leadership or science programs.  Anglers can find all three types within Alaska’s public and private post-secondary institutions including:

University of Alaska Southeast—Juneau, Alaska

The University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) not only offers sport fishing as a physical education course, it is offered as part of its Outdoor Leadership program.  This Land and Sea-Grant Institution located in Alaska’s capital city has about 2,000 students with another 2,000 split between two satellite campuses in Sitka and Ketchikan. For the past four years, Ron Hulstein has taught Fly Tying, Fly Casting, Fly Fishing, a two-credit course offered in the summer and fall terms. The course is one of a group of “Skills Courses” from which students enrolled in UAS’s Outdoor Skills and Leadership (OSL) program must take at least 12 credits of the 34 required to receive their one-year certification.

UAS’s offers the OSL program in cooperation with the National Forest Service. This is a nine-month intensive humanities program designed to develop skills and characteristics essential to success as an individual, group member and leader in outdoor and adventure settings. Students completing the program have the knowledge and skills to plan and manage a variety of outdoor experiences, and are well qualified for entry-level positions in the outdoor industry.

Hulstein’s Fly Tying, Fly Casting, Fly Fishing course introduces the fundamentals of fly fishing, fly-tying materials, fly patterns and what to avoid.  It also introduces students to fly casting with a rod, different types of casts and various fly presentations. Students learn these skills at local lakes, streams and saltwater locations. Hulstein says he caps enrollment in each class at 10 students in order to maintain the highest quality educational experience for the students. Into each of his 37.5-hour classes, he tries to instill a love of fly fishing, the thrill of catching fish on flies that students make, and the opportunity of acquiring a lifetime activity.

UAS-Juneau first offered an Intermediate Fly-fishing course during the last six weeks of the 2006 spring semester, culminating with a steelhead fishing trip to the Situk River near Yakutat.  “It was great; we had some of the greatest fishing, though this year the weather was colder,” said Hulstein.  “We had twelve people in the class focused on fly fishing for steelhead. In the fall, the class is geared for coho (salmon) fishing, and in the summer it’s Dollies, cutthroats and kings (Chinook salmon).”

Juneau is very much a sport-fishing town. Hulstein has worked with the local fly-fishing club (Raincountry Fly Fishers) and shops in getting people to help out with casting technique.  He works with the local churches and a 4-H outdoor skills club by presenting fly casting and fly tying. This collaboration extends to the northwest into Yakutat where Hulstein has led several steelhead fishing trips to the Situk River with UAS students. During these trips the Forest Service gave free use of a public cabin in exchange for pubic service where the students cleaned up the campgrounds, cut and split firewood, and picked up garbage down the Situk River. More information about Hulstein’s UAS-Juneau fly-fishing classes can be garnered by calling him toll-free at (800) 478-9069. 

University of Alaska Southeast, Sitka Campus—Community Education and Professional Development

The staff of UAS-Sitka’s Community Education and Professional Development serves the University, the community, the region, and the state by offering nearly 70 workshops each year, various conference events, several Elderhostel programs, the Alaska Naturalist program, and two to three Certificate Programs addressing specific needs in the Sitka community. Included in this is a fly-fishing and fly-tying program usually offered in the spring. More information about UAS-Sitka Community Education can be gathered by calling program coordinator Sue Barlow at (907) 747-7762 or e-mail her at Sue.Barlow@uas.alaska.edu.

Alaska Pacific University, Outdoor Programs—Anchorage, Alaska

Alaska Pacific University’s (APU) Outdoor Programs strives to provide opportunities for members of the APU Community to get outside and enjoy what Alaska has to offer. They offer outdoor recreational trips, clinics, resources, and services that facilitate this goal. They do this in a participatory way, emphasizing safety and leave-no-trace practices, facilitating relationships with others and the environment through land, water and snow-based activities. 

This fall, APU Outdoor Programs offered a “Kenai River Fly Fishing” weekend workshop on October 16-17 that provided students a long weekend of angling for rainbows among the Kenai’s fall colors.  The APU Outdoor Programs office is located in the Atwood Building on the APU campus and can be reached by calling (907) 564-8614.

Kenai Peninsula College—Soldotna, Alaska

The Kenai Fishing Academy (KFA), located in Soldotna, Alaska, is a fishing experience unlike any other offered in the state.  What sets them apart?  Their only mission is to teach people how to be better anglers.  During their one-week summer fishing schools pupils spend 20 hours in a classroom learning fishing techniques from experts. Then top Alaskan guides and instructors take them to some of the top fishing spots on the Kenai Peninsula, including the world famous Kenai River, to practice what they’ve learned.  Given this intensive week-long fishing curriculum, it’s conceivable to understand why program director Dave Atcheson calls the Kenai Fishing Academy, “The Home of the Educated Angler.”  This program was the focus of Fish Alaska feature article in December 2005.  Kenai Peninsula College is part of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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