Friday, January 11, 2019

A Meal Fit for a Queen

Note: This story was originally written for and published in Northern Wilds Magazine out of Grand Marais, MN. They'd kindly agreed to let me re-post it for you here. You can also view the original e-edition here.

Tiny wisps of blue sky teased us through the clouds as we launched into the wild brown waves of the Klutina River near Copper Center, Alaska. Brandon Thompson of Copper River Guides manned the oars of his inflatable raft, assisted by Otter, his fluffy black and white boat-dog-in-training. We sped by thick forests of twisted black spruce.

I sat on the raft’s front bench, sandwiched between Philip and Luke. These guys have been friends since they met in a neighborhood park in Manhattan when they were two. They didn’t have much fishing experience either, which made me feel better about my rusty casting skills. I wasn’t sure if I really had the motivation for a full day of fishing, but the allure of catching and eating my own Alaskan salmon was too great not to give it a try.

Brandon set us up in a line along the gravel bank; all casting into the break between faster and slower currents. Within minutes, Phil had landed the first fish in a frenzy of excitement: a female king salmon. Brandon gave him a jubilant high-five.

I had been both thrilled and hesitant when Brandon told me over the phone that he was fishing for kings this week. Ever since I landed in Ketchikan back in early June, the local news has been all about the late, small, disappointing salmon runs. The kings in particular were so scarce that their season was closed completely in many watersheds, even to subsistence fishing. Local radio stations ran numerous stories about the possible causes and implications of this nine year pattern of decline. Theories abound, but fish biologists cite complex changes to the salmon’s marine habitat as the most likely culprit. 

While king salmon—also known as chinooks—are native to the Northern Pacific Ocean and the rivers that flow into it, they have been introduced to New Zealand, Patagonia, and the Great Lakes. Natural reproduction in Lake Superior’s North Shore streams is currently low, but Minnesota’s Chinook populations are bolstered by hatchery fish, and their run should be happening in October with the fall rains.

This year, in the watershed of Alaska’s mighty Copper River, the season was closed to commercial fishing, but not to sport and subsistence users. The run was late, but it came. And without the pressure from commercial fisherman, Brandon’s been seeing more kings in the Klutina than ever before. As if to illustrate his point, both Phil and Luke got fish on at the same time.

For bait we were using salmon eggs Brandon had harvested, cured, and tucked into little mesh sacks. We’d cast upstream and let them bounce downstream along the gravel bottom of the river. These salmon won’t bite out of hunger—they stop eating as they swim toward spawning and death—but they will instinctively defend their rocky nests against errant eggs washing in from upstream. When they grab the eggs to toss them away, that’s when we set the hook.

With my bait bouncing along the bottom and translating every rock into a jiggle, I started to create a tactile map of the riverbed. Then, my line halted; tugged. I whipped my rod tip toward shore to set the hook. Fish on! The pattern began: pull upstream, reel in line as you point your rod down again. Pull upstream against its fight. Reel in when the fish takes a breather. A huge red and silver torpedo leapt and splashed in the shallow water. My arms were aching and my shoulders tight by the time I gave one last pull to raise its nose, and Brandon got under it with a net.

Pink, silver, red, big. Her soft, thick body was as long as my arm. I knelt in the shallows and held her by head and tail for a photo, then pointed her into the current and watched her swim away. I’m sure I was still grinning as I washed fish slime off my shirt cuffs. It was a little disappointing not to keep my first big fish, but we let all the hens (as female salmon are called) go. Not only are they important for the continuation of the species, the energy they put into their eggs is hard on their bodies so they aren’t very good eating.

We fished a couple other places along the river, but that first hole proved to be the best. Luke landed the first buck, and I got the second. Those were our only two keepers. All told, we probably caught and released a dozen hens, each estimated at around 25 pounds. There were a few that got away and—of course—they were much bigger. The blue sky teaser turned to drizzle. Brandon filleted the fish at the river landing and threw the scraps to a flock of waiting gulls. After handshakes all around, I lugged my plastic bag full of raw fish over to a little log building called Copper Central.

Soon my 13.3 pounds of salmon meat were scheduled for a flight home in a freezer box. Intent on eating some of my own fresh salmon, I asked the guy behind the counter to hack off one serving for me to eat tonight. Foil was in my kitchen tub in the car; firewood is everywhere; but I needed a couple tablespoons of butter. The brightly colored sign and eclectic look of Klutina Kate’s B&B caught my eye. After conferring with the owner, the young staffer with an Eastern European accent let me take a lump of butter out of the dish and carry it away on a paper plate. No charge, just a smile and joke.

The salmon fillet I saved out to eat...

North of town I pulled into a rest area, and was thrilled to find picnic tables and low fire grates next to another rushing river. As my small fire burned to coals, I wrapped the salmon fillet and butter in tinfoil. Twenty minutes later I pulled the steaming packet from the coals and took it down to the riverbank for my feast. The meat was pink, tender, and flaky. I had no seasonings, but hunger is the best spice. After spending a drizzly day on the river, making new friends, and receiving Alaskan neighborliness, my meal of king salmon felt fit for a queen.

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