Last June my family and I went fishing in Alaska, where we spent more than a week on a feverish quest to catch the elusive Alaskan king salmon. (Yes, this here’s a halibut recipe, but read the whole post to fathom why.)
I’m not sure how much you know about the fabled Alaskan king salmon. These prized mega-fish, which range from 20 to 50 lbs., return to their birth streams to spawn and die. (Or get caught.) They are coveted by anglers and gourmands alike. Landing one is a fisherman’s version of pitching a no-hitter or sinking a hole in one. But it feels more like hunting snipe.
The methods involved in catching a king salmon defy logic and conventional fishing knowledge. There’s a more or less universal principle of fishing: Fool a fish into biting a hook by simulating (or using a tasty hunk of) something the fish might actually eat. That golden rule is useless here. Why? Because spawning salmon do not eat.
Here’s what does work: Big, uncamouflaged hooks adorned with neon-colored yarn that looks nothing at all like fish food. The objective is to flip your hook into the stream and hope it lands in the mouth of a fish. This technique is called "snagging," and if you think it sounds like a local pulling a tourist’s leg with
phony tips, you should stop by Ship Creek, home of the Slam’n Salm’n King Derby, and watch it at work. When the salmon are running, a wall of anglers lines the bank of this urban stream in Anchorage. They stand shoulder to shoulder, thick as thieves, close enough to catch each other (which they often do).
It’s called "combat fishing." And, by golly, they do catch fish. Big ones. So big they have to knock
them out with sticks or rocks. (Maybe that’s the combat part.)
My family (husband, father, uncle, three boy cousins, and mother — all experienced fisherfolks) and I spent an entire week attempting this technique, with laughable results. We fished constantly, earnestly, fervently. In the land of the midnight sun, you can fish all night under a sun that never really sets. So we plied rivers and creeks at all hours of the day and night, only to get skunked again and again. We even resorted to fishing a stocked tidal lagoon called, imaginatively, The Fishing Hole. (Click on that video link to see the antithesis of my visions of fishing in Alaska.)
Around midnight on Day Three I hooked and fought the only fish that saw the end of my line all week. It was big. It was strong. And then it was gone. Only later did I read a reality-check statistic: "State of Alaska Department of Fish and Game statistics show in recent years that the unguided angler will spend nearly 40 hours fishing before he will even hook an Alaska king salmon." Doh!
By the end of our trip, we were trailing those odds. I had hooked myself, the river bed, my family members, sundry strangers, and one tree adorned with more lures than a Christmas tree has ornaments. My husband reeled in a rock. But the closest I had come to catching a king was nearly getting knocked down when a huge one swam smack into my leg. (This happened, unbelievably, not once, but twice.) I swear I could hear the fish laughing.
Luckily, our trip was saved by a last-minute booking on a halibut charter-boat. The boat wasn’t big enough for our entire group, so my mom and I went and hiked to a glacier while the men caught fish bigger than them. In a matter of hours, they had caught hundreds of pounds of halibut. We processed and froze it, and came home with coolers full of fish. Not king salmon. But fish nonetheless.
The moral of the story: You might not want to plan a trip to Alaska just for the salmon. If you do, invest in a fishing guide. If not, just go for the halibut.
Dish of the week: Garlic-and-Herb Oven-Fried Halibut
My husband tried this recipe on the last batch of halibut in our frozen stash. The panko breadcrumbs added a satisfying crunch that made me do a double-take when he told me it was oven-baked, not fried. The flavor of the halibut shined through.