I am a New Englander, born and raised inland of Boston with only superficial exposure to the fishing industry. My past seafood vocabulary includes: lobstah, steamahs, chowdah, cod, haddock, and Sam Adams Summer Ale. My previous understanding of salmon, apart from grandiose images of grizzlies welcoming ballets of jumping fish into gapping jaws, was that there were two types: farmed and wild. For years, I welcomed forkfuls of homogeneously colored salmon steaks into my mouth- oblivious to the colorful salmon hierarchy that exists outside the Market Basket freezer- the hierarchy where chinooks rule as king.
Five thousand miles from home, my expanded Southeast Alaskan vocabulary now includes an entire continuum of warm colored flesh. Five different salmon species inhabit these waters. What’s tricky is that each one answers to about three different names. Pinks are humpys, chums are dogs, sockeyes are red, cohos are also silvers. With all these different names, methods of fishing them, flesh qualities and arguing attitudes to which fish is best, I’ve struggled to get a full grip on all salmon but one salmon, the chinook- I think I’m starting to get. The most coveted among lip-licking salmon know-it-alls, the chinook’s other name is appropriately king. Assuming the throne as the largest pacific salmon, chinooks boast fatty, succulent, buttery, pink -and on rare occasions white- flesh. The meat demands high market value, constitutes the smallest percentage of the salmon harvest, and draws avid anglers from across the country to Alaskan waters to usurp their first king.
... And so, this New England girl, whose most memorable fishing moments previously include hooking my brother and barfing in the cabin of a charter while my cherub-cheeked grandfather hooked haddock with his Northshore cronies, agreed to cruise the Alaskan coast in pursuit of her King.
Chatter on the docks warned chinooks to be abnormally elusive this season. I, however, retained faith. My salmon sensai Greg Killinger, is no novice to the art of hooking kings, claiming hundreds of these desirable fish since moving to Sitka long ago. I bought my day license, the necessary tag for the potential chinook I would catch and set out. The sun was hot and bright, stripping layers of clothing from my fellow fishermen and I all day- odd for Alaska. We enjoyed a Friday on deck together, admiring a clear view of Edgecumbe- Sitka’s neighboring volcano, and shared the waters with rival boats and hungry humpbacks.
This is the grocery store of rural Alaskans. Here, you don’t compete for parking spots, shopping carts, or the last rump roast. You instead battle swells, compare wits, and scan the horizon for jumping fish. ‘Subsistence’ is the political term used to describe this cherished anachronism and as enjoyable as the practice is to visitors, it certainly means much more to residents. A powerful traditional value to food is celebrated here and where a bag of groceries can cost a small fortune, people also depend on their ability to harvest rich nutrition from the forest and surrounding waters. Each year, by boat and on foot, rural Alaskans harvest this rainforest’s bounties and return home to fill freezers and stock pantries with venison, fish, and berries- a feat that arouses incredible pride.
I was thinking just how good that would feel, was wondering how the meat of white-tailed deer compares to Sitka black-tail, and was rubbing my somewhat queasy stomach when these thoughts were welcomely interrupted by a sudden STRIKE! The fishing rod that had spent a great deal of the morning dutifully hunched over in waiting, sprung to attention! Greg scrambled to the rod, tightened the line and placed it in my hands.
He looked through my eyes, to the hidden angler within, and said something along the lines of…”This is a king. Your King. And if that reel goes overboard, your hand had better be attached!”
The rest of the catch is a hilarious blur of shuffling bodies, me squealing, eager voices shouting ‘keep the pole upright’ ‘to the left of the boat, to the right, and reel faster’ all silenced by WHACK- a strike of the gaff, sacrificing royalty on deck.
I admired the beautiful sheen of her scales, hugged her fat slippery body to my fleece, estimated her length and weight, and grinned for pictures with my prize. We caught a rainbow of other fish during the remainder of the day but like the over-eager, impatient, cookie jar invading child I am, I couldn’t help peering into the ice chest at her beautiful body and the meal she promised.
And so, I caught my king and ate her too. I know she was a female because bright red eggs were revealed while we cleaned her flesh on shore. We also recovered two full herring from her stomach… this was easily the most intimate experience I’ve had with my food and now my food’s food to boot- how wonderfully gross.
Beside a salad bursting with freshly harvested salmon berries and beach asparagus, my king’s meat made for a delicious fresh meal. Harvesting your own food is an honorable tradition that evokes pride, love, and harbors respect for the animal, its habitat, and for the family and friends with whom you chose to share with. The rest of her meat is flash frozen and vacuum sealed, awaiting future travel back to the east coast where I will return home to my family as a unique type of provider. I certainly haven’t made a fortune as a conservation intern in Southeast Alaska. However, I am beyond rich with experience, newfound respect for America’s last frontier and am hopeful my parents (and the US government?) will accept a cooler full of fish flesh as starting payment on my college loans…