Sockeye Salmon off the Beaten Path: Dipnetting on Alaska’s Copper River

barbra dipnetting sockeye b and w_n

A two-mile hike into the canyon, a scramble down a steep bank, a piece of river with no one else in sight, and a run of red salmon hugging the shoreline, pushing upstream, heading home… 

Chalky-brown with glacial silt and bank erosion, the broad river sweeps by below, swift, powerful, wild. If we’ve timed it right, the piece of water we’ve chosen to fish will be full of sockeyes. Fireweed has just begun to bloom, and the forest trail above the river is lined with bluebells and pink wild roses.

barbra dipnetting sockeye_n

Barbra fishes an eddie where the fish swim close to the bank on their journey to spawning grounds further upstream.

This is not the fishing of hackle and thread carefully presented on graceful, arcing casts, nor even of Pixie spoons heaved out and fluttered through clear riffles. The net our friend Nathaniel Wilder has loaned us measures roughly three feet across and four feet long and is attached to a 12-foot handle. The rig is cumbersome, made more so by the surging tug of the current and we take turns bracing the handle against a slate rock outcropping to keep it steady in the river’s flow. When a fish hits, the net comes to life.

barbra dipnetting sockeye b_n

With a salmon in the net, the scramble for solid footing begins. 

sockeye in net_nLeft: On average the hens are smaller, but the roe is a delicacy. 

They come one, two and even three at a time and average six pounds apiece. The limit is 30, and it’s quickly apparent it won’t take long to put that many on the bank. A small, ice-cold stream cascading down the canyon wall provides the perfect place to clean the catch. We’re happy to have packed in a scrap of wood to serve as a filleting table.

The two-mile hike back to our camper, our backpacks loaded with 90 pounds of fish between the two of us is work, but a good kind of work. Back home, we’ll smoke and can the bright red fillets. The roe we’ve kept will be cured and made into ikura.

sockeye fillets_nBrilliant red-orange and marbled with fat, these sockeye fillets are ready to be brined and smoked, seasoned and broiled, grilled on a cedar plank, or sliced thin and served as sashimi. As per standard practice in Japanese sushi shops, we freeze salmon (and other fish) for at least 24 hours prior to preparing raw.

eagle in high water_n

Warm weather in Alaska has meant quickly melting ice and high water. 

wild roses_n

blue bells and trestle ruins_n

Above left: Bluebells, horsetail ferns and salmonberries take over the ruins of an old train trestle. Right: Dense patches of wild rose perfume the air along the trail. Below: We hiked out of the canyon at midnight, just as the Alaskan sun was setting.

copper river midnight sunset_n

For an excellent recipe for brining and smoking salmon, see: Smoked Salmon with Soy Sauce and Brown Sugar Brine

For an easy ikura curing method, see: Ikura: Curing Salmon Eggs

Eat Wild! Sautéed Fireweed Shoots and Fiddleheads with Freshly Caught Fish

fireweed and fiddleheads w rockfish_n

Lightly sautéed in olive oil with a pinch of salt, these tender fireweed shoots and fiddlehead ferns compliment fresh rockfish on a bed of pasta. 

With the beautiful warm weather we’ve been enjoying this summer in Seward, spring flew by before we knew it. So we had to do some climbing to harvest the purple-colored fireweed shoots and young fiddleheads we wanted for the rockfish dinner we had planned.

fireweed shoots_nEleven hundred feet up Mount Marathon, near the last patches of snow at the edge of the timberline where the cold had extended spring we found what we were looking for. We filled our stainless steel water bottle with a couple handful’s worth of these delicacies, added clear, icy water from a rivulet to keep the shoots cool and hiked back down the mountain.                                                             The perfect time to pick fireweed is when the young shoots are still purple. 

Mount Marathon mid June _n

                                                                              Right: The town of Seward is a nearly vertical drop below the timberline of Mount Marathon. The day was sunny and shorts-and-t-shirt warm and even with a bit of haze in the air the view of mountain-rimmed Resurrection Bay was spectacular.

Below: This well concealed nest added to the sense that we had turned back the clock a few weeks to earlier in spring.

fox sparrow nest mt marathon_nBack aboard Bandon that evening, we poured out a little bourbon into a couple of tumblers, seasoned a fillet from a rockfish we’d caught the day before, and panfried it along with the fiddleheads and fireweed.

There is something incredibly satisfying about harvesting one’s own dining fare – whether from sea or river, garden or mountainside. If you are lucky enough to live where you can gather wild plants, we hope you will. Keep your best spots secret, leave plenty to sustain regeneration and a healthy population, and maybe pick up a little bit of the litter less considerate people have left behind on your way out. Bon appétit!

yelloweye rockfish_n

The Gentleman Angler

Before we moved to Alaska, we’d never seen fog flowing down mountains. I’m sure it happens elsewhere… This was one of those days of sunshine and patchy fog. Fog encircling the horizon. Fog pouring like a river through mountain gaps on Resurrection Bay. 

I like foggy days. Fog means you can start late and not miss the bite. When it’s foggy, sometimes, big things happen late in the day.

By the time Barbra and I got our C-Dory fueled up and heading out into the bay, it was 10:30 A.M. Most of the fleet – both the charters and recreational boats – had long since left the docks. There was a time when I would have been with them – when I had to be on the water early. Dawn. Before dawn. Early early. Trout streams in Pennsylvania, striper rivers in South Carolina, sea bass beaches in Japan….

Most days, the early morning bite is the best.

Fog changes that.

Laid out on the dock are six silver salmon, eight rockfish, a couple of greenling, three small halibut, and a 35-pound lingcod. A couple of the salmon and the halibut didn’t make it into this photo. All of the fish were filleted, vacuum-packed and flash-frozen, ready to travel with us to Point Hope. I asked Barbra to name her favorite on the dinner table. “The variety,” she answered, without missing a beat. We didn’t get up early for these fish, and we didn’t run far.

We could get up earlier. We could run further. We could catch more fish and larger fish.

We know that.

At some point in my life, numbers and size stopped mattering so much. I still like to fish. But most of the time, most days, the fish that interest me the most are the ones that are still biting after I’ve had a good night’s sleep, breakfast, a leisurely mug of coffee (not in a to-go mug, but in my favorite mug at my breakfast table) and have read the news.

“We’re gentleman anglers,” my older friend and mentor Bill Kodrich explained to me. Forty years ago, we were in a cafe, me with a slice of blueberry pie, Bill with a slice of apple pie and a cup of coffee. It was about ten in the morning. We were headed for Spring Creek. I’d never been. I was eager to go. I thought we should have been there four hours ago.

“We don’t need to hurry,” Bill said with a characteristic smile. “There’ll still be trout in the stream when we get there.”

I get it now.

Bacon-Wrapped Smelts (Hooligans, Eulachons or Candlefish)

Freshly caught smelt prepared two ways: In the foreground, the fish was rolled in polenta. The smelt in back was dusted in seasoned flour. The fish were pan fried, wrapped in bacon and placed on whole leaves of Romain lettuce to be eaten from head to tail, bones and all. A sprig of asparagus and a few dollops of bright orange flying fish roe (tobiko) finishes the lettuce taco.

As I write this, one of the small rivers flowing into Resurrection Bay is jammed full of smelt. Specifically Thaleichthys pacificus, commonly referred to as hooligans. The AFS (American Fisheries Society) has settled on the name eulachon (pronounced you-luh-chawn), from the Chinook Indian name for the fish. Early west coast explorers and settlers called them candlefish because the spawning fish are so full of fat (about 15% of body weight) that when dried, they can be lit and will burn like a candle.

In the foreground: Polenta is especially coarse cornmeal. Seasoned with salt and pepper, rolling smelt in polenta gives these soft-fleshed fish a nice crunch when pan friend. In the back: another way to prepare smelt for the frying pan is by dropping them into a Ziplock bag containing seasoned flour and giving them a few shakes. Tarragon, fennel, marjoram and salt and pepper are a good start when seasoning these fish. Tongs make this a neat job. Note the asparagus in the pan on the stove.

The meat and bones of eulachons are quite soft. So soft, in fact, that when pan fried, the bones are barely noticeable. Their flavor is wonderful, but they definitely benefit from the addition of some crunch.

When the smelt are running in a river with a healthy population, getting enough for a meal or two is easy. On large rivers, a long-handled net might be necessary. But on this river, the fish were thick and close to shore. Two scoops of the net, and we had all the fish we needed.

Like their relatives, the salmon, eulachon are anadromous. They spend most of their life in the ocean, feeding on plankton, and then return to their natal streams and rivers to spawn, after which they die. Males arrive first and comprise virtually all the fish in the early part of the run. Later the females show up. Ideally, it’s the females you want, as a fresh fish laden with ripe eggs is a delicacy.

The males are quite good, too. In either case, cleaning these small fish (they average about eight inches/20 centimeters) is a simple matter of rinsing them in clean, cold water. There is no need to gill, gut or scale them.

A seemingly endless school of eulachons makes its way up an Alaskan river.

Summer Blueberry Picking on the Arctic Tundra

Friends from Shishmaref after an afternoon of blueberry picking. Gathering a cupful or two of these small, tart berries growing in scattered clumps across the tundra was work… the fun kind. The following morning, we celebrated with a stack of blueberry waffles.

Accustomed to the six and seven-foot tall blueberry bushes of Oregon where Barbra and I had picked berries by the bucketful when I lived in Astoria, we were surprised to learn that blueberries were growing right under our feet on our walks through the tundra near Shishmaref. “There’s lots,” one of my students told us. “We’re going to go tomorrow. You guys can follow.”

“Follow” is the village English way of saying “come along.” And sure enough, once we learned to key in on the unmistakable Autumn-red of the bushes (if ground-hugging plants that top out at six-inches can properly be called bushes), we began finding an abundance of small, perfectly ripe, deliciously tart berries. The comparatively thick, woody stems of some of these bushes suggested that they had weathered quite a few seasons near the Arctic Circle. Growing among the blueberries were crowberries (locally called blackberries) and low bush cranberries. Elsewhere in the far north, including in Europe, there are cloudberries, perhaps the most delicious berry on earth.

We walked along in the late summer sun, finding patches of berries here and there, crouching and kneeling to pick, and then moving on to find another patch of tell-tale red. Birds were out sharing the bounty – or maybe the insects associated wtih the fruit: lapland longspurs, white-crowned sparrows, savanah sparrows, and other small birds.

The pause that refreshes. A berry-picker gazes across the open tundra on Sarichef Island where Shishmaref is located, snacking on a bag of berries that probably aren’t going to make it all the way home. The red leaves near her feet? Yep. Blueberries!

Yelloweye & Grits: Breakfast Onboard Gillie

Yelloweye rockfish (Sebastus ruberrimus), a species of the Pacific Coast from Baja Mexico to Prince William Sound Alaska, is prized for its delicate flavor.

We’d spent most of the night on our C-Dory, drifting over deep water on Prince William Sound, admiring the moon and stars in the clear summer sky, talking about our life and occasionally dropping heavy, water-slicing knife jigs to the rocky bottom 160 feet below. Fishing was slow – a few small lingcod notwithstanding. The night was as still as a painting, the inky water mirroring the heavenly lights. With the engine cut off, the quiet was enveloping. When the yelloweye hit, I knew right away it wasn’t another ling. “Might be our yelloweye!” I said to Barbra as I worked the fish up from the depths.

And sure enough, it was. Barbra expertly scooped it up in the net, I did a quick fillet job, put it in a plastic container which I set in our cooler, and we headed back to port for some well-earned sleep. It was already early morning, though not quite yet dawn.

A few hours later when we woke, the sun was already high in the sky and the marina was bustling with activity. With daylight burnin’, we walked up the dock to the showers, blue skies and a few puffy white clouds overhead, deep green hanging on the mountains rimming the harbor.

Back onboard Gillie I put the Coleman stove on the aft deck, fired it up, and after Barbra made coffee I fixed a fisherman’s breakfast of southern-style grits topped with easy-over eggs and a couple of yelloweye fillets along with the collars – that especially sweet piece of meat that includes the pectoral fin muscle. (The collar looks a little like a lobster in the above photo.)

Not a fancy breakfast, but a special one. I kept the seasoning simple: a little sea salt and black pepper ground coarse. The steaming plates of food accompanied by French roast coffee made for a great start to another day in paradise.

Harvesting Chickens Alaska Style

There are days when it seems, as Barbra says, like you could put one of your socks on a hook and catch halibut. Two-fish limits are the norm even on slow days. This brace of 20 and 25 pound fish came back-to-back and fell for twister-tails on five-ounce jigs in 80 feet of water near Homer. Halibut this size are referred to as “chicken halibut” and make for fine dining indeed.

We love Alaska, but between the cold and our wanderlust, it’s unlikely we’ll remain here permanently. We dream about sailboats and warm beaches, about driving our camper all over Canada and the U.S., and about one day maybe owning a home on a few acres, complete with a clean, wood burning stove, a large vegetable garden, perhaps some fruit trees and of course a few chickens for eggs and for roasting. The good life comes in many forms!

One thing that has dismayed us as we’ve looked for our next utopia is the state of many of America’s freshwater fisheries. Log onto a few of our states’ department of natural resources pages, look at fish consumption advisories, and a pattern soon emerges. Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contaminate most freshwater bodies, and some even contain unhealthy amounts of DDT–a chemical we’d thought was no longer a problem. Warnings and advisories recommending limited consumption of fish are the norm rather than the exception all across America as fallout from coal fired power plants, cement plants and other sources have laced our waters with unhealthy amounts of toxins. In some waters, it is recommended that no fish be eaten. More commonly – in our view shockingly – anglers and their families are advised to limit their consumption to just one meal of walleye, lake trout, bass or other fish per week or even less!

That’s not very many fish dinners.

The good news is that, thanks to increased awareness which has led to increased regulation of industry, levels of contaminants on many waters are tending downwards. Yes, keeping toxins out of our environment is expensive, but when we take into consideration health issues and quality of life, letting polluters pollute is even more costly. We have the means to keep our country clean, and that’s precisely what we should be doing. If industries won’t comply, then, yes, we need our government to intervene.

Meanwhile, we feel very fortunate to live in a place where, with very few exceptions, people can eat as many meals of fish as they desire with the confidence that they are enhancing, not harming, their health. And so, at this point in our life, our “chickens” are of the finned variety. For now, our halibut omelets are made with store-bought eggs and Tillamook cheddar cheese. Maybe one day they’ll be made with eggs from our own chickens and cheese from our own kitchen!