KETCHIKAN — When the Jack Cotant rumbled out of the harbor shortly after 7 a.m. on Oct. 23, it was the first time maritime students at Kayhi had fished commercially in 15 years — as long a time as some of the students were old.
The 45-foot vessel was carrying students in the Ketchikan High School Maritime II class south of town to lay longline.
The maritime course itself is older than the Cotant. The class was started by Carroll Fader, an administrator at Kayhi in 1967. Jack Cotant was its first instructor.
The father of Rick Collins, the current maritime instructor, was a student in those first classes.
Back in maritime’s heyday, Collins said, the school budgets were fat with oil revenues and the class had two instructors who taught two-hour blocks in the morning and the afternoon.
These days maritime I and II classes are shorter than an hour, with Collins as the sole teacher. That’s in part why it took maritime II students — maritime I students aren’t able to go on the trip — three weeks to prepare for the trip, according to Collins.
Sean Mitchell, leaning over the rail, and maritime students wait to get in position to grab a buoy attached to the longline. Staff photo by Nick Bowman
On the vessel were Keenan Sanderson; Caleb Kuikhoven; Phillip Mueller, an Austrian exchange student; Regan Cloudy; Zachary Stanley; Connor Hicks; Daniel Eichner, Mark Woodward and Joe Chadwell.
The district had a permit for 173 pounds of halibut, but Collins didn’t expect to catch near that much.
Students untangled line, secured hooks two fathoms, or 24 feet, apart on the line and drew diagrams of how the line would be set and retrieved.
In the days leading up to the trip, they cut and set chunks of salmon and herring for bait.
On the cold, clear morning the Cotant set out, the nine students and Collins had prepared approximately 700 hooks and just short of two miles of longline.
They were going to fish with gear that was either donated or bought during the course of five years with a budget of $1500 to $2000 a year, according to Collins.
Fishing captain Dan Haynes donated five skates of line and a number of tubs, Collins said, and Russell Cockrum, also a captain, helped Collins through the newer process of laying longline.
The vessel slowed after two hours of southerly travel from Ketchikan. Collins said he picked a sheltered spot so Ketchikan fishing captains Sean Mitchell and Ken Eichner could teach students in relative peace.
Collins took the Cotant around the narrows looking for a favorable bottom. When it was found, Eichner and Mitchell gathered the boys near the stern to show them how to safely drop the first anchor and buoy and then let the line out.
They needed to keep an eye on the ropes and their feet, they said, to keep from being caught in the line as it was let out and dragged overboard.
Mitchell dropped the first anchor and buoy. Skates were arranged at the stern so that, as the line was going overboard, they could pull the empty tubs and push the next one forward. They listened to Mitchell while shoving skates forward and pulling empty tubs out of the way.
Some boasted that the lines that went out without snags were theirs; others pinned any tangles on their friends.
But they listened when Mitchell explained the process and how it’s done by professional fisherman.
They go farther out to sea and normally set five-mile lines instead of two, he said, and let the line soak at the bottom for eight or nine hours — Collins and the students could let them soak only two or three.
The rest of the line was out without incident, and after two hours the first buoy was pulled back onto the Cotant.
A yelloweye was the first fish to come up.
Several of the student-fishermen pressed against the railing of the Cotant to see bright orange fish rise to the surface.
Mitchell pulled the fish from the longline as it was lifted to the boat.
“Watch out for those spines,” he said, handing the fish off to a student. “You don’t want to get stuck by one of those.”
A poke from a yelloweye or rockfish feels similar to a bee sting and lasts about as long, Mitchell said.
Sanderson struggled with the circle hook in the fish’s mouth before unceremoniously tossing it into a tub. He spent the rest of the trip pulling hooks from fish.
Other students racked hooks, pulled fish from the longline or performed the least favorite job: sitting behind the boat’s winch to coil line as it was brought up.
The line hooked approximately a dozen yelloweye and rockfish, more than a dozen skates and just as many cod.
They caught 10 halibut, but kept only two and didn’t come close to maxing their permit. When all the line was in, they had two of the flat fish that pushed the 3-foot mark.
“The halibut tend to move out this late this time of year,” Collins said. “I didn’t have high expectations.”
On the way back to Ketchikan, after the line, buoys and two anchors were hauled in, Mitchell showed the students how to clean their catch before they stored it in the ice below deck.
Gutting the halibut, taking care to clean out the quick-rotting “sweet meat” as Mitchell called it, was quick. He emphasized the need to bleed the cod before they’re stowed to slow the decomposition of the cod.
Back on land, the fish were sold to the Kayhi culinary arts program for school lunch. (Baked yelloweye was served on brown rice with a lemon butter sauce on Nov. 6.)
Collins said any money made would be used for the maritime program.
He’ll take all the funding he can get — especially after he’s seen the maritime, and the vocational program at large, at Kayhi shrinks to its current state.
“We’ve completely lost a big section of your vocational education courses,” Collins said. “Kids will find that comfort zone and that niche and it’s the big bright spot in their day. They’ll endure a lot of other courses just to come in to the few that they like.”
Students might even put in their own money to participate in something they like — maritime students ended up paying for their own fishing licenses.
“The kids all had to buy commercial deckhand licenses — $30 licenses — in order to legally fish,” Collins said. “They didn’t balk at it.
“Not only did they have to work at school — they paid to do it.”