Until last year, Eric Pankau managed the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Grace Fish Hatchery.
Now, he’s in charge of students at Pocatello High School, having found a new way to advocate for Idaho’s wildlife and natural wonders.
As a new teacher, the fisheries and conservation expert is drawing from his background to expand Pocatello High’s curriculum into new areas — such as range land management, forest ecology, wildlife management and outdoor skills.
The outdoor recreation class he started, for example, is in its second trimester and exposes students to skills such as fly fishing, fly tying, primitive fire building, mountaineering, mountain climbing, kayaking, skiing and Dutch oven cooking. It’s offered as a one-credit elective.
Pocatello High Principal Lisa Delonas approached Pankau about becoming a teacher and starting something fun and different.
“I felt that it was important for me to get involved and give (students) something they might not get otherwise,” Pankau said. “I was ready for a change in my life, and this seemed like a cool opportunity.”
On Dec. 12 and 13, Pankau took advantage of a break in the cold weather to take the 40 students in his two sections of outdoor education fly fishing at Edson Fichter pond. Prior to the field trip, the group practiced casting in their high school lawn, using 9-foot, 6-weight Echo fly rods purchased specifically for the class through Snake River Fly Shop. For most of the participants, the field trip represented their first attempt at fly fishing; a few of them even landed trout.
Pankau kept a couple of their fish and smoked them, sharing smoked trout on cream cheese bagels with his students during the next day’s class.
Sophomore Natalie Armstrong comes from an outdoorsy family and many of the class activities are already second nature to her. But she acknowledges the class has helped her further hone her skills, especially at identifying native plant and animal species.
“I like that we can go out and do things and learn things that i’m interested in that Pocatello, Idaho, has to offer,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said many students don’t know the class is available yet, and she expects it to become increasingly popular.
Sophomore Jaxon Casto is looking forward to a class skiing trip at Pebble Creek Ski Area. He’s an avid skier; lessons will be offered for those who are new to the sport.
“I think we do take for granted the outdoors. I’ve been in some bigger cities and they have to drive hours to find stuff like this,” Casto said, looking at the snow-covered peaks in view of the fishing pond.
Sophomore Chase Gibson was among a handful of students who was successful during a lesson in which the class tasked with starting a fire using primitive methods. The Idaho State University Outdoors Program provided expertise and supplies such as flint and steel to aid in the activity.
“It’s been awesome,” Gibson said. “We go over a lot of hunting, and things you need to go camping and survive in the wild and things like that — preparedness,” Gibson said. “The last two weeks we’ve talked about fishing a lot and it’s been really cool. I love fishing.”
Pankau teaches an introduction to natural resources course as a prerequisite for the outdoor recreation class. In his classes, he covers plenty of science, with an emphasis on outdoor ethics, ecology, leave-no-trace principles and resource-driven decision making. Students also learn that outdoor skills are attainable and aren’t this “high-tech thing they can’t pick up with a little bit of attention and effort.”
“We’re trying to build appreciation through exposing them to a potential lifelong passion for outdoor recreation and use,” Pankau said. “You can’t love something unless you appreciate it, and you can’t appreciate it unless you understand it.”
Pankau is teaching under an occupational specialist certification offered through the state’s Career and Technical Education Program. The certification acknowledges participants’ years of relevant experience in other fields and allows them to take additional coursework while they teach to maintain their credentials.
Pankau has a degree in environmental studies from Boise State University and has also worked at Fish and Game’s American Falls Fish Hatchery, as well as in commercial salmon production in Alaska.