If giggles and smiles were any indication, some 65 sixth graders from Saugatuck Middle School had a great time catching salmon and trout last Tuesday, a kind of perk for helping raise king salmon in their science classroom.
“Just think, that fish might have been one we raised in our school and released two years ago,” said Katie Hankins, sixth-grade science teacher at the school, as a six-pound king salmon flopped on the deck of the big Sea Ray boat. Smiling student Ebony Lafountain had just reeled it in, her third fish of the morning.
The middle school is one of close to 200 schools throughout Michigan that participate in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Salmon in the Classroom program. Each October, Shana Ramsey, interpreter at the Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery in Kalamazoo, coordinates teachers picking up eggs and transporting them back to their schools. There, they’re put into aquariums of at least 55 gallons and raised through winter into young salmon, called “smolts,” suitable for release into Great Lakes tributaries. The Saugatuck batch numbered around 200 fish and was slated for release into the Kalamazoo River the following week.
Ramsey said the program started in 1997 with just four schools; it has grown as interest spread. This year, each school received about 200 eggs—about 40,000 altogether. Ramsey said that last year’s numbers weren’t available, but in 2012, the schools released 10,728 young kings.
Last Tuesday, the Saugatuck kids boarded 19 boats piloted by volunteers coordinated by Captain Dave Engel of Best Chance Charters, and Sarah Coffman, secretary of the Holland/Saugatuck Area Charter Association. In about three hours of fishing, the kids harvested more than 80 fish, largely a mixture of kings and lake trout.
“You must really be special,” Sarah Coffman remarked to me as I hustled to the dock, five minutes late for the appointed 7 a.m. takeoff after having trouble finding the Tower Marine facility on the Kalamazoo River. All was well, though, as I climbed aboard Break Time, a 37-foot Sea Ray yacht. Captain Tony Wiatrowski of St. Joseph had the helm, with first mate duties split between 20-year-old Jeremee Curtis of St. Joseph and 18-year-old Kylie Krause of Grand Haven. Both of the younger crewmembers are part of the Break Time salmon tournament team. Also aboard was teacher Hankins with students Ebony and Mari, who were lucky that two other students didn’t show up. That meant they got to take turns reeling in the fish.
Captain Tony and his crew had just won third place at a salmon tournament the weekend before out of South Haven, so the experienced captain nosed the boat back to the same productive waters south of port. It didn’t take long before a planer board scooted backwards indicating a strike, and Mari reeled in the first fish of her life, a small king of about three pounds.
“That was fun!” the smiling sixth grader exclaimed. Soon after, Ebony got to tussle with the biggest fish of the day, a 14-pound lake trout that ate a spoon behind a downrigger. She said it wasn’t her biggest fish, having caught a big catfish from the Kalamazoo while fishing with family a few weeks ago. In all, the two girls would land six of 11 fish that hit. One of them was a king salmon almost as big as the laker. Not bad for just over three hours of trolling.
“This is a great program,” said Hankins about Salmon in the Classroom. She noted the kids get to monitor the water in the aquarium, kept cold by expensive chillers, usually donated to schools by sportsmen’s groups. The young salmon also bring home lessons about the health of the Great Lakes, identifying fish, and other topics concerning natural resources, she said.
This is the fifth year that members of the Holland/Saugatuck Area Charter Boat Association as well as private anglers have been taking the kids fishing, said Captain Engel. All of them volunteer their time and donate their fuel costs.
“It’s really big for the community,” Engel said. “A lot of these people who live here have never been salmon fishing, so it brings a lot of interest to our sport.”
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.
Images by Dave Mull