“My dad asked me one day if I wanted to go fishing. I thought he meant sport fishing, so I headed for the fishing pole. He says, ‘No, not that kind, commercial fishing,’” Ken Koyen says of his start as a fourth-generation fisherman. “I said, ‘Commercial? Can I do it?’ He says, ‘Hold out your hands.’ So I held them out. He says, ‘They’re big enough!’ And that’s exactly how I got started.”
That was when he was 17. Now, about to turn 70, Koyen is the last of his kind on Door County’s Washington Island.
Most mornings, Koyen wakes up around 6 a.m. and makes his way to his fishing tug, the Sea Diver, docked in Jackson Harbor by 8 a.m. The 48-by-13-foot tug, built in 1950, is his daily companion. Though he fishes solo, he says he never feels alone because he senses the presence of his father with him.
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On days when he’s not sure where the fish might be, Koyen lets fate decide. “On my way out of Jackson Harbor, I just let go of the wheel and see if the boat goes to the east or the west. I just figure powers higher than me are giving me the direction,” he says. It’s this kind of freedom that’s kept him in the fishing business all these years. “I can do what I want, when I want, where I want, as long as I’m in state lines. After 50 years, I’ve only grown to love it more.”
But right now, it’s 2 p.m. on a Wednesday in early March. The forests and farmlands of the island are blanketed in snow, and huge chunks of ice bob in the waters surrounding it. Koyen is piling wood into the fireplace at KK Fiske Restaurant, a beautifully rustic eatery and bar he owns. A pot of coffee sputters near a long wooden table that, like most of the furnishings in the building, Koyen made himself.
“Mother Nature,” Koyen responds when asked what the biggest challenge of fishing is. “All Mother Nature, boy.” Koyen has let his white hair grow long over the winter, tucked back with a black cowboy hat, his neatly trimmed white beard matching the snow outside. He’s wearing a green flannel shirt, black pants and boots. Ice doesn’t necessarily preclude a day of fishing, but it certainly can present challenges.
“By the time I got out there, the ice moved in on me. I followed the ferry out, then I had to wait to follow it back,” Koyen says, referring to Washington Island’s icebreaking winter ferry, the Madonna, which runs the 5-mile trip between the island and the peninsula two or three times a day in winter. “It was tough. Going out this morning [the ice] stopped the big boat four or five times. Some of the cakes they were spitting out the back – they lift the boat right up, and the boat weighs 20 tons,” Koyen continues. The cakes he refers to are giant chunks of ice. “I couldn’t do nothing. But there’s always tomorrow.”
KK Fiske relies on a reputation for fish as fresh as it can get – from Koyen’s nets to the restaurant’s kitchen. Those that don’t make it onto a plate are driven down the peninsula to Sister Bay, where Koyen’s fishing colleague sells their combined catches to a wholesaler.
“A lot of my fish end up going up into Canada, processed and brought back into United States, I don’t know why, other than the belly of the dollar,” Koyen shrugs.
The best time to make a big catch is mid-to-late spring, which Koyen notes is not perfect timing – the biggest demand for fish on the island is during the summer months.
“Our population goes from a couple hundred potential customers to thousands,” Koyen says. The island supposedly has 708 year-round residents, though many of them spend the winter elsewhere. When June rolls around, boatloads of summer residents and tourists arrive daily to enjoy the scenery and relax in a quieter, slower pace of life. Businesses that have been in hibernation since November open their shutters for a busy summer season. KK Fiske is a popular destination, with one of their offerings being a Door County classic – the fish boil, where an outdoor fire is started and baskets of whitefish are lowered into a boiling kettle. Koyen catches as much as he can in summer, and if he needs more, he buys from other Door County commercial fishers.
But this time of year, much of Washington Island (and Door County in general) is dormant and empty, biding its time for warmer weather. Just a few businesses are open year-round, like Mann’s Store, the island’s 119-year-old old grocery, and Koyen’s restaurant.
“See, that’s what happens if you don’t lock the door,” Koyen jokes as a neighbor moseys in, pours himself a cup of coffee and joins in the conversation. Washington Island is a tight-knit community where everyone knows each other; the door is open and the coffee’s on as an act of hospitality.
Past Death’s Door
When Koyen started his commercial fishing business in 1971, there were nine other fishers on the island, he says, all that remained of the fishing community that at its zenith employed half the island.
“They were older, like me now,” Koyen says. One by one, they passed away, until Koyen was the last to remain.
Ken’s older brother Tom had helped him fish in the past but wanted his own career in agriculture. Ken’s son Jesse helped his father fish for seven years but decided to pursue a career in conservation. He works for the Door County Land Trust, down the peninsula in Sturgeon Bay. That leaves Ken’s younger son, 36-year-old Hans, who serves as general manager of KK Fiske. But when it comes to the fishing side of the business, Hans has a significant hurdle.
“I have what I jokingly call the curse of the fisherman’s son, which is I get really seasick,” Hans explains. “If it’s a calm day I try to go out, but unfortunately it hinders me from taking over the whole fishing enterprise because I do not do well on choppy waters.”
Hans grew up between Sturgeon Bay and summers on the island but moved away for several years – he went to culinary school in Appleton, moved to Colorado and then to Madison, before he returned to the island in 2011. “He needed help,” Hans says of his return, laughing and gesturing toward his father. Here, Hans has found peace with the quietness and natural beauty of the island, as well as the extreme contrast of the business.
“It’s really quiet in the winter, really busy in the summer. I guess it’s nice to have the diversity – spend a couple months relaxing, spend a couple months balls to the wall,” he says. To pass slower times, “music is what keeps me sane.” Hans sometimes jams with other musicians, but often plays solo, rocking out to “everything from real old-school classic rock to alternative to some newer stuff.” He’s also written his own material, including a song titled “Strange Times,” inspired by a ferry ride to the mainland to stock up on toilet paper as the pandemic began.
“This is probably one of the only places in the world where UPS does not deliver to the door. ‘Do you want it delivered to the front door or the back door?’ Just get it to Death’s Door,” laughs Ken, referring to French explorers’ name for the treacherous choppy waters around the peninsula: Porte des Morts. The currents caused by the islands and freshwater reefs filled the area with shipwrecks in earlier times, though modern technology has made the voyage much safer.
The two fish Koyen pursues in these waters are whitefish and “lawyers,” the latter local slang for a freshwater cod named burbot. It’s known in other parts of North America as a cusk, ling or a mud shark. “Here we call ’em a lawyer,” Koyen says. Why? “The proximity of their heart – it’s in their ass. That’s just the way their anatomy is, it’s the only fish I know that’s like that.”
A plate of lawyers is KK Fiske’s most popular dish. “When I’m lifting, I always holler, ‘C’mon you brown bags of bones!’” Koyen says. “You got to eat them fresh. They get really tough if you freeze them, so it’s fresh or nothing.”
Also hot on the menu is his blackened or Parmesan whitefish. When he doesn’t have his own catch, like today, the special will be freshly caught fish from elsewhere. Tonight, it’s walleye from Lake Superior. “We’re known for our fish, so I refuse to get anything farm raised when we buy,” Hans says.
Koyen built the KK Fiske building in 1983. It was originally the Washington Island version of a strip mall, housing a deli, ice cream shop, real estate office and Koyen’s little carry-out restaurant. As the other businesses closed down, Koyen expanded into the other spaces. In 2000, he added a granary building from the 1860s that he moved to the island from Zander, a small community near Manitowoc. The new addition became a bar called, appropriately enough, The Granary. More recently, a large outdoor patio bar was constructed to accommodate people during the pandemic.
Fishing out of Baileys Harbor
Koyen is the last one on the island, but there are other commercial fishers still in business in Wisconsin. The exact number is hard to pin down as some fisheries have multiple licenses, and fishers can opt to lease their license to others. The Department of Natural Resources caps commercial fishing licenses at 65 on Lake Michigan and 10 on the Wisconsin waters of Lake Superior. Carin Stuth, of Baileys Harbor Fish Co., says she thinks there are about 40 active licenses. About a half-dozen of these fisheries are found in Door County, with a few more in Sheboygan and the Green Bay area. The rest are far north, spread on the shores of Lake Superior.
Stuth’s father, Dennis Hickey, and her uncle Jeffrey, second-generation fishers, formed the company as Hickey Brothers Fisheries in 1967. Their fleet of three boats fishes both the bay and lake sides of the Door Peninsula. Stuth is the company’s human resources director and account manager. The company fishes for whitefish and yellow perch, sometimes chubs and smelt; last year it caught about 159,000 pounds of whitefish and about 4,000 pounds of perch. It also processed some 40,000 pounds of whitefish and 34,000 pounds of perch caught by other fishers.
In 2017, the Hickey family turned the front of their processing building – filled with scaling machines, cleaning stations, a freezer and a smoker – into a small retail space where they sell fresh fish. This spread includes herring from the Halvorson Fisheries in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, on Lake Superior, lake trout from tribal fishers in Michigan, and swordfish and grouper from Florida. A display of photos from throughout the company’s history decorates the walls of the store, and you can see the original Hickey family dock, where their boats still operate, on the lake just across the street.
Baileys Harbor Fish Co. employs eight people full time and an additional four or five seasonal workers. It delivers fish to restaurants around Door County and also has a wholesaler that sends a truck every Monday and Thursday to distribute its catch to Chicago, New York and beyond.
Unlike Koyen, the Hickeys don’t try to fight the ice. They typically fish April through October and use the winter to catch up on boat repairs and get their nets fixed up – in their large garage, a couple of the captains were spending their time sprucing up one of the fleet’s boats, the 45-foot-long Lars, a deck boat built in Two Rivers in 1977 and refurbished in 2004. The company’s newest boat is the Gunnar J, built in 2017.
“They are our key pieces of equipment. We take good care of them; they’re part of who we are,” Stuth says of the boats. The fleet also includes the Trygg, built in the mid-1940s and still used for fishing by the Hickey brothers today.
Stuth says after the slow period of winter, there is excitement in the air as the company gets back to work for the summer season. Nets begin to be laid out in April. Their retail shop reopens in May, and she says, “it’s always nice to see customers back in our store and to catch up with our regulars again, to ask them how they’ve been.” By June, things are in full swing and busy on the boats, in the store and in Door County in general.
Challenges in Making Ends Meet
For some fishers, Stuth says, making ends meet means getting second jobs at mills or factories. In addition to their storefront in Baileys Harbor, Stuth and her husband, Todd, run a research project company, Hickey Bros. Research, that has done projects with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, UW-Stevens Point and the Wisconsin Sea Grant surveying fish populations locally and in other states. Their largest is at Yellowstone National Park, where they are working to catch and eradicate the invasive lake trout, which caused the native cutthroat trout population to crash.
Invasive species have taken a toll on fishing numbers in Lake Michigan, too, with zebra and quagga mussels among the species that have disrupted the food chain. “[The zebra mussels] are cleaning the water so clean that all those little plankton that whitefish, perch, smelt and chubs eat are gone,” Stuth explains.
The popularity of sport fishing, which both Stuth and Koyen cited as cutting into the commercial catch, presents another challenge. “[The] sport fishery now fishing our fish, that never should have been allowed to happen. That should have been cut off by someone using a little ink on the commercial fishermen’s behalf,” Koyen says. “Ten years ago, they could have written in that whitefish would never be used as a sport fish and nobody would have said boo.”
“We’re trying hard to advocate but when there’s only 40 of us, it’s not a big voice, whereas there’s probably 120-150 licensed [sport] charter captains, maybe more,” Stuth says.
Then there’s the fact that few of the aging fishermen will be replaced.
“My dad is approaching 80 this year, so his generation of fishers is gone,” Stuth says. “There’s a barrier to entry – it’s capital intensive. A vessel is extremely expensive.”
“As far as up here, I hope someone picks it up. For the survival of this place, it would be a lot easier if we had our own fish,” Koyen says. As for himself, “I mean, I’ll fish until I die.” And when that fateful day comes, Washington Island’s fishing legacy will likely be in the history books.