A fish tale

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Chris Elias with Sunnyside Farms Market displays a wild-caught Oregon Salmon in a display cooler at Nature’s Oasis on Monday.

By Pamela Hasterok
Special to the Herald

That beautiful, wild king salmon you grilled for dinner Friday was swimming in the Columbia River on Tuesday or perhaps even Wednesday. Not bad for Colorado, a state that has no coastline and no major fish-producing river.

Colorado is about as landlocked as it gets. In case you were wondering, it’s 800 miles from Durango to the closest city on the Pacific Ocean, San Diego, and 1,143 to the first major town on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston, Texas.

The journey for that fatty, flavorful, fabulous king salmon from the Columbia River to Durango was 1,063 miles if it was caught at Wishram, Wash., where king salmon are in season now.

So, you might ask, how do they do it? How does a 15-pound, wild king salmon make it from the Columbia River (the premier spot for the species this time of year) to your table in three to four days?

“Say I’m getting fish on Tuesday. They got pulled out of the water on Saturday, they were picked up at the Denver airport Sunday, and I get them Tuesday morning,” said Tim Staehler, seafood manager for Sunnyside Farms Market at Nature’s Oasis. “I never thought we could get fish this fresh and high-quality in Colorado.”

And he buys it, week in, week out, for delivery on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Nancy Vogel, owner of the Friday-only fish market Flying Fish Co., marvels as well. She opened her shop six years ago at the suggestion of a visiting family member lamenting the lack of fresh fish in Durango.

“We didn’t have the availability of really fresh seafood then,” she said. “I’m still blown away by how good it is.”

Staehler and Vogel buy from the same distributor, Mountain Valley Fish & Oyster Co. out of Montrose, owned and run by Andy Goldman. He buys fish from all over the world, but most of what we receive in Durango comes from the Pacific Ocean, via Hawaii, Alaska, the mainland West Coast states and the Gulf of Mexico.

Goldman’s top sellers are salmon, halibut, tuna and scallops, but the wild king salmon running now is a particular favorite.

“Salmon is always tops,” he said, a little sheepishly, noting that he also loves black cod and scallops.

If you are a Chinook salmon, as king salmon are officially known, you are prized for your flavor by home cooks and restaurant chefs alike and coveted by commercial fishermen for your market value. You’re revered as near deity by west coast Native American tribes, which have exclusive rights to some of the Pacific Northwest’s best salmon fishing grounds.

You’re born in the gravel of a freshwater river, where you stay for up to 18 months before meandering downstream to an estuary, then heading for the Pacific. There, you live a happy life, eating plants then smaller fish for several years before summoning the strength to return to your birthplace. If you’re female, you lay eggs and die. If you’re male, you look for a mate.

If you’re caught in the spring, you’re big – up to 35 pounds – which earns you the nickname “hog” – and filled with delicious fat because you didn’t make it very far on the strenuous journey upriver.

Garry Morlock, a fish buyer for Pacific Seafood, Goldman’s supplier, landed a 26-pounder in July just for fun. The giant king bit on an artificial lure called a quickfish and took 20 minutes to finally get into the boat. Morlock caught a lot of fish that day, noting that the salmon run this year was much better than last.

“They tear a lot of line off your reel,” he said. “They want to thrash around.”

So how was it on the dinner plate?

“It was a really, really, really good fish,” he said.

Thank heavens for that, because he has another 20 pounds in his freezer.

If you’re a salmon caught in summer, you’ve traveled a long way, and your leaner flesh is firm and desirable. Salmon stop eating when they make their freshwater return, which enhances the texture of the fish.

King salmon are plentiful now, their shocking raspberry hue and chrome-colored skin showing up in stores from Oregon to Florida. But before it reaches your kitchen, our Columbia River king still has a story to tell. After all, it’s no easy trip to swim up to 1,200 miles to reach home.

“Wherever they grew up, they’re going to go back to that same little stream they were hatched from. It’s their instinct,” said Jim Smith, head of national sales for Pacific Seafood.

The salmon we’re receiving in Durango likely have made it at least 200 miles upstream in the Columbia River past the Bonneville Dam, beyond which only Native Americans are allowed to fish. Wishram, Wash., is a major fishery for the tribes and the oldest continuous fishing village in North America for 9,000 years.

In the old days, Native Americans would build walls to narrow the river’s flow and funnel the salmon into their nets. Today, they build scaffolds to fish from, dipping nets attached to long poles into the rushing water and hauling out a few Chinook at a time. They also throw weighted hoop nets, about 5 feet across, into the Columbia, a method that can yield as many as a dozen fish at once, although one or two is more likely.

Today, it’s curtains for our king. Once caught, the king is clubbed and his gills are removed. Then, the race is on. The faster it gets to market, the more valuable it is.

The Native American fishermen move the fish quickly to a riverbank processing plant, where they clean them, pack them on ice and head to the nearest selling station.

Brian Marthaller of Netarts Bay Seafood awaits. He buys the salmon, loads it into refrigerator trucks and rushes it to Smith in Clackamas, Ore. Workers at Pacific Seafood cut our mighty king into two sides, pack it into gel-ice lined protective boxes and fly it to Denver, all on the day it was caught.

The next day, Goldman’s drivers whisk the fish to Montrose for further portioning, packaging and icing. The fish is never frozen, but rests in coolers set at no higher than 33 degrees.

Then, the king is off again, this time to be delivered to fish markets and restaurants in Durango.

If it’s lucky, it will be treated well. The king is the king of the sea, full of flavor and healthy omega-3 fats. Because they’re so tasty, king salmon require no more attention than a sprinkle of olive oil, a dash of salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon before reclining on a hot grill for a few minutes per side. (If you want to gild the lily, you could brush on a honey-Dijon glaze at the end.)

For some of us, even in Southwest Colorado, nothing says late summer like a wild, fresh-from-the-river salmon.

phasterok@durangoherald.com

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