by Justin Bubenik
North American Pacific salmon draw recreational anglers from around the globe to the waters of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. While diverse in appearance, size and table fare (depending on who you ask), all five commonly recognized species exhibit native life histories that take them on journeys from their home in the freshwater to the ocean and back.
Those that make it downstream past the obstacles in the river spend differing times in the salt, feasting on a seafood buffet, bulking up and dodging predators. Tagged salmon are regularly caught in Asian waters, with surviving brethren destined to return to their home rivers thousands of miles away where they face another journey altogether.
The difficulty of that trip upstream for any run of salmon depends on the luck of the genetic, or geographic, draw. Some coastal systems support salmon that travel less than 10 miles to the spawning grounds and other fish of the same species endure hundreds of miles of natural and manmade barriers before they make it to their gravelly bedroom. Regardless of the motivation, the drive of these fish is enviable.
Initially silver torpedos of amino-rich fat and protein, what you find in the shallow gravel hardly resembles the fish that entered the river weeks or months prior. Every salmon that has the chance undergoes one of the most drastic and unique changes as they near the stretch of water where they spent most of their infancy (egg, alevin and fry-stages). The salmon are, simply put, decaying, as they approach and complete spawning, and die - leaving behind essential nutrients along with the next generation to continue the cycle.
If an angler is skilled or lucky, and the runs permit, they’ll intercept a salmon in a slightly more appealing state, like a fresh-from-the-salt chinook or a couple sea-lice-laden sockeye, to take home to the table. Depending on the preparation, all five species are tableworthy before they are “colored-up” and prepped for the spawn. With that said, there are few people that will turn down a properly prepared smoked salmon dip...
I’ve willingly caught and eaten chum (keta or dog salmon), but I was lucky enough to grow up catching “springers” (spring-run chinook) on the Willamette, chasing silvers (coho) after high school on rivers and creeks less than 30 minutes away, and driving to the coast to intercept whatever was running at the time. The runs and numbers varied year to year, but there was typically a fish or two to be caught and brought home.
Though my fallback is always a fillet barbecued over a cedar plank with varying spice and citrus combos, beer-battered salmon, Hawaiian poke, grilled salmon steaks and smoked salmon are all regular, and personally-suggested, preparations when the stars align for an angler.