CORDOVA, Alaska – The race for the first Copper River Salmon of the season is fast and furious among Seattle restaurateurs. Salty’s Owner Gerry Kingen and Head Chef Jeremy McLachlan, in partnership with Pacific Seafoods, decided to take the friendly local rivalry up a notch with a whirlwind trip to Cordova, Alaska and the Copper River delta. The goal, to have a Copper River King Salmon netted in Cordova and plated in Seattle in under 8 hours. We were invited to come along for the adventure.
“This is it,” said Gerry Kingen “We’re going for the Holy Grail.”
Our morning began at 6:30am with Captain John Harvil at the helm of “Spike Island.” After a safety briefing from John, and warm cinnamon rolls brought on board by his wife Barbara, we slowly made our way out of Cordova’s “New Harbor” and into Prince Williams Sound. Taking us nearly an hour to reach the Copper River delta, the passage was a winding one due to the shallowness of the water which at times is only a single foot in depth. There were flagged markers the entire route out to the delta as a safe guide for boats in and out of the harbor.
“Anytime you go out it’s exciting,” said John Harvil “It’s a nice day, calm seas, everything is perfect today. It makes it really nice when you can see the land. Everything is wonderful.”
The day was warm, winds were calm and the sky was slightly hazy. Everyone on board was in high spirits and hopeful that our northern venture would be a success. Chef Jeremy couldn't wait to get the mouthwatering catch aboard.
“They’re really special because they’re really fatty, flaky, moist,” said Jeremy McLachlan “The kings are just gorgeous.”
Our plan on arriving at the fishing grounds was to meet up with one of Captain John’s team boats, then jump on board to haul in the gill net hoping for the best. Gill nets are used since the salmon are heading up river to spawn and are no longer eating, no need for hook or line.
Looking out across the entrance of the Copper River we saw numerous boats dotting the horizon, gill nets deployed and basking in the sunshine. Captain John began a series of animated radio calls to the fisherman on our team boats in search of our first fish. The morning however, was proving to be a slow one with each radio response coming back in the negative for the illustrious salmon.
“Fishing is fishing you know” Said Captain John Harvil
Our luck changed when Ron Goodrich, the town accountant known as Rotten Ron, let us know he had a few Kings on ice and was about to pull in his net which he hoped would be fruitful.
“I’m a rookie out here, only been fishing 28 years out here on the flats,” said Rotten Ron, “It just takes a little bit of effort and maintaining your equipment”
His gill net reeling in, clanking and splashing as the buoys pop over the rail we saw our first king fly over the side. In the sun the Copper river salmon glittered as Ron wrestled it out of the gill net. Before we had time to reflect on our first catch another fish came slipping over the rail, followed promptly by two more. It took Rotten Ron only moments to untangle each one from the net, plopping them unceremoniously on the floor of the boat. Our catch netted us two Kings around 25 pounds each, two Sockeyes at about eight pounds each and it was just barely 10:30 am.
“You get a long river fish like the Copper River and they’re really high in oil and it just makes ‘em taste better,” said Rotten Ron “They’re just a better eatin’ fish.”
With the two Copper River Kings on board and on ice the excitement from our crew was palpable. Several photographs ceremoniously kissing the fish were taken as we made our way hastily back to Captain Johns boat. With our eyes on the clock Captain John navigated our boat as quickly as the passage back to “New Harbor” allowed.
As soon as we pulled into the dock Chef Jeremy and Stephen Kelly with Pacific Seafoods hauled the cooler with the fish off the boat and into the back of an SUV for a short drive to the processing plant. The two fish were, gutted, cleaned, weighed and packaged in a matter of minutes. Once they were boxed up we all made a mad dash for Cordova’s airport where a Learjet awaited us.
“We really focus on stewardship, the thing we’re most proud of is our boat to throat model,” said Stephen Kelly “in the seafood industry that means taking it all the way from the water and taking it all the way to the backdoor of our customers, controlling the quality and trace ability.”
Traveling at speeds closing in on 500 miles an hour we swiftly made our way from Cordova to Juneau for a quick fuel stop, and then finally off to Seattle landing at Boeing field just before 5:30 pm. We followed a small caravan of cars out to Salty’s on Alki and were greeted by an expectant crowd. Everyone wanted to see the fish. Chef Jeremy was quick to pull the fish out for all to watch and marvel as the Sou chef prepped the fish for the grill.
“All right here we go, we’ve got fresh fish all summer” said Chef Jeremy.
With a quick turn on the grill and a small slathering of butter the fish was served up rapidly and devoured by 6:30pm. The consensus among those who were lucky enough to get a first taste… it was definitely worth it. The crew was beaming, they had worked at a break neck pace all day and it had paid off. They had made it from net to plate in eight hours.
“This is the heart of what we do, seeing where our product comes from,” said Chef Jeremy “it really speaks to you and makes you enjoy what you do even more. It’s just like when you pull a carrot out of the ground from your own garden, it tastes sweeter than anything else.”