The West’s most iconic fish is worth seeking out, whether you’re wielding a fishing pole in Alaska or contemplating a menu in Mendocino.
On a sunny morning in June, I’m standing on the deck of the Bay-Son, a 30-foot charter fishing boat, as it rocks on the waves 14 miles off Sitka, Alaska. The chinook salmon season, which runs from May to September, is in full swing. As Nate Obitz, the 25-year-old captain, puts it, “If you can’t catch fish today, you shouldn’t be fishing.” He has baited four lines with herring and the rods are fastened to the boat’s railing. We are to watch for changes in tension, which indicate a bite, then grab the rod and start reeling.
I’m passionate about salmon. I love their orange-pink flesh (salmon pink), crave their velvety richness, and am fascinated by their mysterious life cycle. One of the most ancient species of fish, the salmon has long been prized in coastal regions of the Northern Hemisphere. In Germany it was a favored dish of Frederick the Great. In the Pacific Northwest it formed such an integral part of the native diet that legends revolve around children who don’t eat their share. “An Indian gave me a piece of fresh salmon roasted, which I ate with a very good relish,” Meriwether Lewis wrote in 1805 while traveling through territory that’s now part of Idaho. “This was the first salmon I had seen, and it perfectly convinced me we were in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.”
He was still several hundred miles from the Pacific, but in some respects Lewis was indeed in its waters. Salmon hatch in inland creeks, then swim to the ocean, where for up to seven years they fatten themselves on krill, shrimp, squid, and small fish. Then, unerringly, they return to their ancestral waterways to spawn. Vast herds of buffalo no longer roam, but the salmon still run, and a determined salmon fighting its way upstream remains one of our region’s most vital and enduring symbols.
I am fishing for chinook, or king, the largest of the five types of West Coast salmon. (The others are chum, coho, pink, and sockeye.) We are on the water for about half an hour when the first bite comes. I have trouble controlling the careening rod and Obitz tells me to wedge it hard against my stomach. I reel on and off for five strenuous, somewhat painful minutes. “They’re strong fish,” Obitz says, almost apologetically. Suddenly the salmon swirls into view, a flash of silvery muscle thrashing a yard or so from the boat. Obitz leans over and scoops the fish up with a net, drops it on the deck, and conks it on the head. Thirty inches. Obitz estimates it weighs 16 pounds. I feel exultant. I feel undeserving. This was too easy.
Not as easy as it once was. Lewis described the number of Columbia River salmon in 1805 as “incredible to say.” No longer. Wild Pacific Coast salmon are now at about 7 percent of their historic abundance; Alaska has the most, California the fewest. Meanwhile, wild salmon have all but vanished from the eastern United States, victims of overharvesting and habitat destruction. Pacific salmon face the same threats, they just haven’t faced them for as long. In one current case, conservationists are fighting proposals to build a copper mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska, at the headwaters of the two most productive salmon rivers in the world.
Another problem: salmon farming. Most of the salmon we eat is farmed, raised in crowded offshore pens that spread disease and parasites to already fragile wild populations. Some chefs, among them Rick Moonen of RM Seafood in Las Vegas, refuse to serve farmed salmon because of such concerns. And Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch advises consumers to avoid buying or eating most farmed salmon (montereybayaquarium.org ).
What else can you do? “Wild salmon are a miracle of nature. We need to go and celebrate them,” says Guido Rahr, president of the Wild Salmon Center, a Portland-based advocacy group. By this he means spend money where the salmon live. When you visit the natural habitat of a healthysalmon run, you create financial incentives for the surrounding community to preserve that habitat. Visit the fish ladder at Seattle’s Ballard Locks or at Oregon’s Bonneville Dam, and you can watch chinook thrash their way upstream as they have for thousands of years. Or meet them at their destinations. Throughout the fall, in tributaries from Idaho’s Salmon River to California’s Tuolumne, salmon can often be seen fighting for territory, digging nests, spawning.
Saving salmon by killing them sounds contradictory. But in fact fishing for salmon, as I did on Sitka Sound, helps strengthen their populations. Fishing in North America is tightly regulated, says Rahr, and its impact on numbers is minor. (“We’ll take fishing over mining,” he says drily.) Meanwhile, it brings money and jobs to Sitka—money and jobs that hinge on the well-being of the salmon.
I am reunited with my fish—which has been cleaned, frozen, and packed for travel—at the airport near my home. I later roast it whole. The creamy coral flesh is sweet and pure yet at the same time rich, which is the delicious paradox of salmon. This 16-pound animal does not represent just another dinner. It feels like a feast—and a gift. It will feed us abundantly for days, as wild salmon have sustained humans for millennia. Whether they will be doing so in another millennium, or another century, is an open question.
For more about salmon, check out these other VIA articles:
Wild Salmon in 17 Restaurants  Check out a pick of some of our favorite places where you can order this delicious fish.
Recipe Wild Salmon with Grilled Vegetable Succotash  Try this delicious recipe from Campo restaurant in Reno.
Photography by Robbie McClaran  (Silver Grille); courtesy of Jennifer Reese (holding fish)
This article was first published in July 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.