As rafters, hikers and bikers dust off their gear in Durango, the Alaskan coast is waking up for the salmon season before the coveted fish start their journey from the Pacific Ocean to perform baby-making magic upriver. The Container of Food chef Jeremy Storm was able to experience the transformation back when he used to work as a private chef for the National Wildlife Federation conservation nonprofit in the town of Cordova at the mouth of the Copper River.
“The town is just coming to life, coming out of winter,” he said. “They are gaining 8 to 10 minutes of sunlight every day. It becomes manic.”
The Copper River season takes off mid-May with the king salmon run. Copper River salmon are touted as the highest in quality that money can buy because they are at peak fatty level before they make the days- to weekslong journey to a comfortable spawning spot. Storm said during the first opener, the salmon can go for as much as $60 to $90 per pound before the hype dies down.
A month later, further southeast, Eric Macias and his crew will board the 58-foot Silver Wave, named after a shoal of shimmering coho. It also shares its name with the fish company that sells salmon in filets and cans in Southwest Colorado that Macias and his partner, MJ Carroll, run.
“We come in at the end of the king run,” Macias said. “I’m a seiner, so I have a bigger boat, a bigger crew, and I catch a bigger volume of fish at one time.”
Macias, who lived in interior Alaska as a kid, has been fishing for 12 years in the southeast of the Gulf of Alaska. He said that’s just where he started and what he knows. He also said it’s debatable whether Copper River salmon is better quality than any other wild-caught Alaskan salmon. He compares it to how Vermont syrup isn’t necessarily objectively better than Canadian syrup, but it has the name recognition attached.
Macias fishes all five species – sockeye, king, coho, pink and chum – for Trident Seafoods, one of the five major fishing companies of the world. Some of that is utilized for his Silver Wave Seafood Co.
From mid-June to mid-September, Macias, the captain, a skiff driver, engineer, chef and deck boss will try to catch as much red gold as possible with their 15,000-foot-long and 100-foot-deep net. The seine is wrapped around a shoal versus being pulled in the water like a trawl.
“I have skiers-slash-crewmembers from (Durango) and from Salt Lake City right now. I have another from Alaska and another from Washington,” Macias said. “That’s totally part of the ski bum lifestyle; they have to make money during the summer.”
“Bum” might not be accurate as the crewmembers break their backs in the summer for their winter freedom. Three months on the water can result in a $10,000 to $40,000 paycheck.
“It takes about a week to get used to life on the boat for new people. It takes two weeks to get used to the physical side of it. Then after that, you’re just in your routine,”Macias said.
That routine begins at 2:30 a.m. and can last until midnight.
“We fish for 15 hours and we are probably awake for at least 20,” he said.
He said the boat is in constant motion as they chase down the run. They hit the peak around the first week of August. The skiff drives in circles trying to capture the fish. In one set, they catch up to 10,000 salmon. The Silver Wave completes 15 to 20 sets a day, at about 40 minutes per set. Their catch is put into the ship’s fish hold that has a capacity of around 80,000 pounds. A tender boat, which holds around half a million pounds, picks up the fish before it’s processed. Silver Wave processes their own fish that they bring back to Durango.
Storm also seine fished for two years in Cordova and helped his friends with gillnetting, which traps fish that swim into the net by the gills. But nets are not the only predators after the sweet Omega 3s.
“Every critter imaginable are trying to get their hands on those salmon,” Storm said.
Hundreds of species exist because of the salmon run, and salmon reflect the health of the rivers and ecosystem.
Despite the bears, eagles, otters and humans all after the pink meat, both Storm and Macias attest to how well managed the fisheries are. It’s part of Alaskan culture. Storm said it was written into Alaska’s constitution that resources would be managed for sustainability. There are limits on how many permits are given, but Macias said “the sky’s the limit” on how much the Silver Wave can catch.
“It depends on how much money we want, how hard we want to work,” Macias said. In 2013, though, processing plants couldn’t keep up with the load and they had to stop fishing for quality reasons.
A good year doesn’t directly translate to more money in their pockets because the more salmon on the market, the less it costs. But Macias would rather work more for the same amount of money. It keeps morale high.
“It’s way more exciting to catch a lot of fish,’ he said.
Both Storm and Macias said there are a lot of misconceptions about Pacific salmon here in Colorado. They said in Durango, it’s best to buy frozen fillets.
“The next time it thaws, it will be as fresh as it could be other than when I caught it on the boat,” Macias said.
Shipping could take three to four days or more to get here, so by the time the unfrozen salmon arrives at the grocery store, it won’t be so fresh. Another misconception is all salmon species tastes the same, when really there are different flavors, potency and fat levels. Storm hated salmon before he moved to Alaska because all he knew was Atlantic salmon.
King salmon is the fattiest and the richest. Silver salmon, or coho, is second largest in size. Storm said that coho is closest in taste, texture and appearance to Atlantic salmon, which is normally found at the supermarket.
“Sockeye is my favorite for year-round eating,” Storm said.
Sockeye is also the most temperamental when cooking and can dry out easier. If people eat overcooked sockeye as their first experience, it may be disappointing, he said.
“They all do, but sockeye and king especially take marinades and smoke really well,” Storm said.
Pink and chum salmon are typically found in cans and patties.
Storm adds that sometimes wild-caught salmon is mishandled at the store and occasionally farm-raised salmon looks better. But don’t let this fool you – it’s not.
Silver Wave Seafood Co. takes orders between June 25 and Aug. 20. The fish are then ready for delivery by the end of September to early October.
Storm said he likes salmon best pan-seared. A 6-ounce filet shouldn’t be cooked for more than 5 minutes. He cooks flesh side down and waits until the color changes from translucent to opaque halfway up. Then he flips it, kills the heat and lets it hang out.
He said seeing the protein coagulate is a great indication that it’s closed to finished. To test this, he pushes on the thickest part of the fillet. If it starts to flake under the pressure, that is a good suggestion of a fish cooked to perfection.