Story and photos by Nelli Williams
A few years ago, my kids were playing with friends at a park in Anchorage. The newly built playground was near a gravel bar and medium-sized creek that winds its way through the city. Not too long into our play session, some splashing in the creek caught all the kids’ attention and soon there was a gaggle of kids excitedly chatting about the salmon they saw making their way upstream. Captivated, they excitedly watched and enthusiastically cheered when a coho darted upstream. Some wondered their questions aloud, and others spouted tidbits of salmon facts. The salmon held their attention for as long as, if not more than, the playground! This is a wonderful opp0rtunity for some fishing education.
So many Alaska communities are incredibly lucky to have these outdoor classrooms, with finned teachers sparking wonder in adults and kids alike. While there is so much you can learn from watching fish, there are also some great things you can do as a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friend to spark a love and appreciation in the next generation (or your favorite fishing buddy).
Trout and salmon need clean water, along with healthy and plentiful instream habitat to thrive. There are often examples of things that both support and detract from healthy fish habitat that you can see on a fishing trip. Keep your eyes open on the river and discuss these things with your kid fishing companions to help them better understand what trout and salmon need, and how they can help.
Nelli’s children, Morgan and Mason, enjoying a day on the river.
Healthy Stream Habitat
Take a walk on a river and identify all the places where fish could find shelter. Baby fish need slower water with vegetation, sticks, rocks and logs so they can find food and cover from predators. Adult fish prefer pockets of slower water (for example behind a rock in a riffle) with nearby swift water that acts like a food escalator. They also need clean gravel for building redds (or nests) for egg laying. See how many places you can find with good habitat for fish.
Since nearly every kid likes to dig in the sand and pile rocks, another fun activity to learn about what kind of habitat trout and salmon need to thrive is to build a model of your watershed out of sand or gravel. Add rivers, lakes, tributaries and even an ocean. Explain that after baby salmon hatch out of their eggs in the river and grow a little bit, the fish migrate out to the ocean and then return several years later to lay their eggs in the river near where they were born. Add model houses, roads, and trees. Put rocks in your stream or make little waterfalls. Talk about how different actions in the watershed might help or harm fish and their habitat. You can even add salmon (little sticks work great) and migrate the salmon through the watershed and talk about the challenges the fish might face at different stages of their life.
The salmon survival hike at Bing’s Landing boat launch.
Cold, Clean Water
When you are out fishing, see if you can tell if the water is clean or if it’s being impacted by pollution. Pollution in our waters can be visible, like trash or dirt eroding into an area where fish build their redds, or more subtle and hard to see, like fertilizers on nearby lawns leaching into the river. Discuss how we can all work to prevent water pollution and bring along a trash bag to pick up any garbage you find along the river.
Cold water is also really important for trout and salmon. If water temperatures get too high, it becomes hard for trout and salmon to get oxygen from the water and when it’s hard to breathe, it’s hard to find food, move to evade predators, or spawn. Point out the trees along the river that provide shade and talk about the importance of streamside vegetation. If you are visiting a stream with a light-penetrating walkway, stick to those paths and explain their importance in maintaining riparian vegetation.
While angling is a fun way to spend a day on the river for many adults, kids often need more variety to hold their attention. Do your best to keep it fun, let the kids’ own curiosity lead the way, invest in some decent gear to keep them warm and dry and don’t forget the snacks! And most importantly, get outside and on rivers as much as possible, and have fun exploring on trips both big and small.
Taking time to rest and play is important in keeping your kids entertained during a day on the water.
You don’t need to be a fish expert! Are you traveling and fishing on Alaska’s road system? There are some great resources for learning about salmon in southcentral Alaska.
Portage Valley in the Chugach National Forest has a fantastic salmon viewing platform with interpretive signs that show the lifecycles of salmon. You can watch salmon spawning here from July through snowfall.
Alaska State Parks has a great salmon survival hike that starts at the Bing’s Landing boat launch. You can take a short hike, stopping at signs that describe the challenges salmon must overcome to get back to the river to spawn.
Learn about the Eklutna River and efforts to restore the river through a fun, interactive and informative family field trip found at eklutnariver.org/field-trip.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s WeFishAK program has a ton of great family-friendly resources, including a Loan-a-rod program, and the Five Salmon Family Challenge to help get your kids excited about fishing!
Resurrection Creek in Hope was heavily impacted by historic mining activity. Several years ago, the Forest Service restored a section of the stream, creating more side-channel habitat, increasing meanders and improving streamside vegetation. You can hike upstream from the Resurrection Pass trailhead to see what a successful river restoration effort looks like (and learn more about this partnership working to fix another section just below the foot bridge).
Trout Unlimited’s mission is to protect, reconnect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. Learn about our work in Alaska at home.tu.org/tu-programs/alaska. Nelli Williams is the Alaska Director for Trout Unlimited.
Looking for more articles about Trout Unlimited’s conservation efforts in Alaska,? Fish Alaska has a whole section dedicated to conservation at www.fishalaskamagazine.com/blog/fish-conservation-alaska/