Fishing for Students
I was born in Kotzebue and raised all over Alaska. By now I’ve fished in nearly every part of the state for all five of the wild Pacific species that spawn around Alaska. That's a saltwater King my Dad hooked up for me in Kachemak bay near Seldovia.
As a crewmember, and later as a captain, I harvested Chum Salmon near the Arctic Ocean. The run began as a steady stream sometime after the 4th of July and lasted into early August. Chum salmon don’t school, but they do like to run along the shallows near sandbars as they enter rivers and streams to spawn. For best results, fishers set their nets where the shallows break over to deeper channels cut in the river delta. Usually, we fished about 300 yards of six-inch gillnet set with heavy anchors on either end. That setup works well for chums, but occasionally we caught a feeder King Salmon or some stray silvers.
Far from Kotzebue, in the South and Southeast, there is a June-July purse seine fishery for Pink Salmon. Pinks are substantially smaller than the other species, and they tend to school up in the saltwater before heading upstream to spawn. Consequently, the most efficient way to harvest a whole lot of Pinks is to spot the schools from an airplane, and surround the school with a purse seine. Seining only works for Pinks—even the best captain would go crazy and broke trying to seine for chums. Setting gillnets will catch a few Pinks, but it just isn’t the smart way to go.
Silver Salmon are the next most preferred species for harvesting and table fare. They don’t school as much as Pinks and they don’t arrive during the height of the summer like chum—but silvers like to eat. So along with respectable seine and gillnet fisheries, Alaskan’s have learned to troll for saltwater silvers as they feed up before hitting the freshwater to spawn. Even in the river, silvers deliver some of the best sports fishing in the state. It’s easy to spend a day on a King Salmon river and never hook up, but if you are patient with Silver, you will get good action.
Red Salmon are the royal ingredient of the salmon smorgasbord. Early season Reds are featured in the best restaurants around the world, and paying $50 for an eight-oz fillet is a rite of spring for discerning diners. You can catch red’s by trolling or with a gillnet, but the same equipment that works for chums or silvers won’t make the grade for red salmon. Reds are sleeker and arrive in massive pulses of silver on the incoming tide. Around Bristol Bay, settnetters time the tides and work feverishly to pick fish out of the nets and set the nets back for the next tide. The tricks that work for all the other species are lost on the Reds, but learning to see Red has made millions for many and spread protein around the planet.
Finally, the King Salmon come home to reign. King Salmon are stocky, muscular fish. They may not have the intense flavor of the reds, the ease of harvesting of the pinks, or the cheap abundance of chums, but Kings have fans nonetheless. There is nothing like tying into a massive salmon in the prime of life and desperate to shake off and get about the business of spawning. With some tipping over the century mark, 100 pounds of fighting fish fill the dreams of salmon fishers everywhere.
But still, I’ve caught big kings, and I’ve watched my children reel in pinks till their arms were sore. Both are exhilarating and gratifying. Catching a feisty silver on light tackle is fun, but my favorite fishing memory of all time is landing a mid-size king on a set up designed for trout-like Dolly Varden.
So here’s the transition to the classroom. This is, after all, an education blog. As much as the five species of salmon are distinct and responsive to different techniques, our students are much more diverse and need more nuanced presentations. Many of us have been sent out with chum salmon nets to catch schools of pinks. Others are trolling for gifted and talented King Students using tackle designed for late-arriving Silvers.
Finally, and most importantly to me, remember that salmon don’t arrive at the same time. The salmon arrive when they are ready. No matter how perfect the technique, you will not catch many Silvers in early June. They just aren’t ready. Students are like that. Educators from Maria Montessori to the parents of Reggio Emelia submit their plans to the readiness of the student. As the proverb counsels, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” At the school I currently lead, we have students across a range of abilities. Some are 17 and taking high school algebra. Others are 14 and managing a full college schedule. The fish-kids are not the same.
As we are fishing for the best from our students, the greatest gaps in education are not performance deficits or ethnic disparities. The biggest missed opportunity is the failure to differentiate for groups and individuals. Too often we are guilty of teaching curriculum, not teaching students. With that in mind—do you want to go fishing?