Confession: I have never been fishing in Alaska.
It’s a gasp inducing revelation, I know. Catch your breath, in and out. You’re going to be OK.
I come from fishing stock, a family where Alaskan salmon was so plentiful that towards Summer’s end, it became a bit more of a job than a joy to eat. Yes, I know how that sounds but as a kiddo, I didn’t totally appreciate the pink perfection of omega-filled goodness. I just saw filets for days and days and longed for a little variation.
Then, I grew up.
As my salmon cravings returned, I learned a hard truth: It turns out, salmon, wild salmon at least, the kind I had grown up guzzling down like a wild grizzly cub, was EXPENSIVE.
The idea of paying for something I’d grown up having in excess was jarring to my not so rolling in the dough self so…I moved to Alaska. Just kidding. But…when I did move to Alaska there was a serious perk waiting for me: salmon. All I had to do was reach out and grab it.
…And become approved as a resident in order to get my subsistence permit (which took two years).
…And find time off to fish in the busiest time of the year (which has taken 5 years and counting).
Last Winter, we (meaning Leto) finally finished the last harvest The Chief had yielded pre-meeting me (a.k.a, 5 years ago, a.k.a old) and this Summer, we were hell bent on getting out and getting some salmon to stock the freezer and pantry. So…we did. And by “we” I mean The Chief and his friends because when the fish were running and they had the day off, I had the day on.
The night before the fishing extravaganza began, we had gotten in late after a day-long 10-hour round trip to the doctor took far longer than expected (surprised?! Me neither. Surprised that I ate THREE donuts on that trip?! Nope, me neither. Doctor’s orders).
So, after very little sleep, The Chief and I awoke to prep for him for (hopefully) plucking some prime specimens out of The River. One of the best salmon runs I know of is just two hours down our town’s dirt “driveway”.
I got coolers and snacks and lunches together while The Chief and friends took off our camper shell (something The Chief had been sure just he and I could do at one point in time. I may be strong but he was wrong. That thing is a beast) and loaded our 4-wheeler in the back. The truck was packed to the gills and just as we were finishing stuffing bits and pieces into every last nook and cranny, two fighter jets ripped apart the sky above us. They were so low, so loud, so powerful. I felt it all through my body. Sound and time melted into one another. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. We all started simultaneously cheering and yelling once they were gone. A way to let out the awe we all felt. It was ferociously awesome. And just like that, with a badass flyover adieu to bid them on their way, the boys were gone, set to return later that evening.
Later meaning 8 pm, said The Chief. I factored in the Alaska Time multiplier (think Hawaiian time, just colder) and figured that at the earliest he’d be home by 10 pm.
At 5:30 am the next morning, The Chief crawled into bed.
The fish hadn’t come “in” (meaning there hadn’t been any fish swimming past them) until almost 10 pm that evening. In most places, daylight, or lack thereof would require an end to your day but in Alaska in early July? Fish on.
And so they did. After catching enough filets for each family to go home with 5 slippery salmon, they hiked their bounty back up and out to the 4-wheeler. Then 4-wheeled back to the truck. Then re-loaded it to the brim, readying themselves to finally make the two-hour trip home at 3:30 am, 15 hours after they left home.
The next day it was processing time.
While I grew up pole fishing and was no stranger to handling a wriggling “live one”, we had almost always practiced catch and release. The last time I’d filleted a fish had been when I was just shy of double digits and my fish had swallowed the hook. My grandpa Dick and I had traced and measured the fish to record his memory in our Cabin Book and then my Brother, fisherman extraordinaire, had showed me the ways of the filet that he had learned from his pops. So, 20 odd years ago had been my last foray in the filet. Needless to say, I was a little rusty.
Just ask my fingers.
a.k.a blood everywhere.
It turns out filet knives are SUPER sharp, which makes sense when you think about it (which I didn’t).
Thankfully, the combo of bandaids-a-plenty and gloves had me back in the game and I tried my hand once more with more success and less blood. Finally (thanks mostly to The Chief), all ten beautiful filets laid in front of us. They had done the dirty work the day before of gutting the fish so all that was left was saving the meat.
Next up was packaging. The Chief and I had purchased a vacuum sealer for this precise reason and…booyah! We were finally putting it to its originally intended use. I rinsed the gunk off and prepped the gorgeous red and silver bounty for the freezer. Had we caught more, we would have also pressure cooked them (next time, Aunt Patsy!) but the haul was perfect to fill up the freezer and so, we did. As The Chief packaged, I locked eyes with the fish heads, spines and fins looking back at me and couldn’t imagine just tossing them into the river. I didn’t know how to get it, but it sure seemed like there was a lot of meat left. The flies thought so too so before they jumped aboard I asked The Chief to protect the leftover salmon bodies until I knew what to do with them.
The internet came to answer my quandary: how do I use every part of the salmon? I am a newbie to this land of Alaska. A land that was inhabited long before people who look like me decided it was theirs. The world of late has reminded me to reconnect daily with this reality and while I can’t undo the past, I can certainly do better now. I can pay my respects to the land and to the people, honoring the gifts we are able to harvest. Using every last bit of the salmon felt important and so while The Chief protected the bounty from the winged intruders, I quickly found a plan of attack.
My kitchen shears and I set to work cutting the gawking carcasses to roasting dish size. Finally, fins and flippers inside the vehicle, we were ready to roast.
Thirty minutes later, as The Chief was completing the vacuum sealing, the night’s work was just beginning. As I let the baked bits cool, I prepped dinner. We were having…
wait for it…
salmon, of course!
I found a recipe I highly recommend and prepped the green beans, baked potatoes and homegrown salad to go with it.
Once that was done, I set about to make a long lusted after recipe that triggered all of my recipe stress buttons: gravlax. Why was it so scary to me? I don’t know! Perhaps because I just assumed it was chef-only territory but guess what? I was wrong! Surprised? Me neither. I texted my friend (who is, in fact a chef) who sent me super simple instructions and…deep breath in, I dove in. Gravlax with homegrown dill would be on the table the next night. Things were looking good.
Finally, the carcasses had cooled enough to pick off all the extra meat which was a solid amount of goodness and well worth the extra time, though I will say, digging into fish faces made me a little queasy. Eyeballs, anyone?
The bones and meatless heads stared back at me. What shall you do with us? They wondered.
Hours later, satiated by a beautiful dinner (see below) half comprised of goodies harvested from where we are lucky enough to call home, the broth was ready.
I let it cool, then separated out the spent carcasses. While The Chief went to drop them in a new (to them) river, I transferred the broth goodness into its waiting place for the next salmon incarnation.
By 11 pm, salmon frozen, cured, cooked and boiled down, we were finally done for the day. Leto was exhausted.
The next day, “cocktail hour” a.k.a snacktime power hour (a tradition created by my grandma Gam) featured none other than the gravlax I had made. Not procrastinated over. Not fretted over till I stole all the fun out of it. Actually made. It was deeeeeee-licious! For our main course, the leftover salmon from dinner the night before starred in its next show: salmon chowder. The broth from the carcasses blended with crisped potatoes was rich and creamy and the meal felt nourishing in a way only food you’ve harvested does. The soup provided us three days of meals and happy bellies to boot and the gravlax was treasured like the treat it was for another cocktail hour.
Our freezer still shines red with the bellies of the beasts The Chief and company were lucky enough to find and every time I see them or enjoy them for dinner, I feel grateful.
Growing up, I didn’t realize all that had happened before the fish ever made it to our doorstep. I had little understanding for the precision and hours on end and little bits of luck that it took for my Brother and his Pops to bring home such a hefty haul. They were commercial fisherman and salmon was their currency and still, without fail, good year or bad, they sent pounds on pounds on pounds of fish home to us. I didn’t have to travel to AK, spend days on end without sleep, weather the elements, and then hopefully, finally catch them, gut them, fillet them and package them. Nothing. I just enjoyed them. And since I may not have said it then, I’ll say it now: thank you. I get it, a little more at least, now.
So, no, I still have never been fishing in Alaska but I have been lucky enough to enjoy the goods this bountiful place offers up and to learn some of the ways of preserving that bounty. Some day soon, I’ll try my luck with my super duper awesome find of a GOLD(!!!) dipnet but until then, I’ll use every bit I can, savoring the gift and appreciating the journey I wasn’t on that brought it all home.
P.S. What’s your favorite way to use it all up, be it salmon or otherwise? Let me know in the comments below.
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One of these years I’ll make it to Chitina! For now, though, I’m sticking with the lazy-gal’s dipnet fishery and leaning on the gunwales of Geoff’s boat at the mouth of the Kenai. Also, um, gold dipnet? I cannot wait to see this thing in a future post.
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Yes! That would be awesome.
I mean, that sounds pretty rad too! However you get the fish is pretty exciting.
Gold, dude. I almost peed my pants when I saw it. I’ll get her out this year, I sure hope at least!
Awesome post! Breaks my stranded south-bound heart and makes me hungry at the same time! Fishing Chitina is so special. Love it up. Every morsel.
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Thanks, Nancy! It really is special. Stay safe, southbound friend!
The food looks delicious, and your photos are wonderful. Alas, the fishing life is not for me – but happy to live it vicariously through others 😄
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We are pretty much in the same (non-fishing) boat then, Jamie! Cheers! Thanks for reading 😊