The King Of Salmon
Do not neglect this food. Be careful that you do not break the rules in taking care of this salmon. Do not take more than you need.
— Yakima legend of overfishing
The Mighty Columbia River
No other river captures the heart and soul of the Pacific Northwest quite like the mighty Columbia River, known to native tribes as Wimahl, Nch’i-Wàna or Swah’netk’qhu. Its story encapsulates thousands of years of human history, interweaving tales of native Americans, discovery, exploration, hydroelectric energy, logging and unparalleled fishing within its waterways.
The Columbia River is the fourth longest in America, stretching an unprecedented 1,243 miles from its headwaters in the Canadian Rockies to the end where it flows turbulently into the Pacific Ocean, near Astoria, Oregon.
Though Lewis and Clark wrote extensively of it in their journals, the river did not get its name till May of 1792 when captain Robert Gray braved the infamous Columbia bar and sailed onto the river for nine days of fur trading. It was named in his honor after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva.
In 1850, the Columbia River was reputed to have 16 million salmon return each year to spawn in its tributaries. The fishing was so plentiful no one ever thought it could end, but after a century of overfishing, farming, logging and building numerous hydroelectric dams the runs have been reduced to a current population of 2 million salmon.
Overfishing and Dams
Overfishing since the late 1800s dramatically reduced populations. Canneries operating since 1867 exported millions of pounds of canned salmon worldwide every year. By the early 1900s, the decline was so noticeable that laws and regulations were drafted and passed. Conservation became an issue.
In the 1930s a series of hydroelectric dams were built along the Columbia River. Currently, no pun intended, the dams provide 50% of the power used in the Pacific Northwest. These dams notably altered the river’s flow and water quality thereby adversely affecting the salmon runs.
John Harrison of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council explains, “Fish ladders and even water-filled fish elevators have been built to try to improve the survival of adult salmon and steelhead as they return upriver. At some dams, there is no fish passage for either juvenile or adult fish. These dams block access to more than 40 percent of the habitat once available to salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.”
A fifty mile stretch of the river passes through the heavily polluted Hanford site, located near the confluence of the Columbia, Yakima, and Snake rivers, near the Idaho Washington border. It was designed and built by DuPont on an experimental design by Enrico Fermi in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project for the war effort. Its plutonium was used in the bomb that devastated Nagasaki.
During the Cold War, Hanford was expanded. Nine nuclear reactors were active until they started decommissioning them from the mid-1960s to 1971. A large volume of water from the Columbia was used to cool the reactors. A U.S. government report released in 1992 estimated that 685,000 curies of radioactive iodine-131 had been released into the river and air from the Hanford site between 1944 and 1947.
The area has since been designated a Superfund project and site of one of the largest environmental cleanups. The states, Indian tribes, and federal government are all working to restore and improve the water, land, and air quality of the Columbia River drainage basin.
Many different groups of conservation experts, commercial fishermen, and sports fishermen are trying to restore the historic salmon runs and improve the health of the river. As questions of conservation and usage are hotly debated, sustainable use is being preached and practiced by those whose livelihood depends on it. Meet two people whose lives depend upon the river.
Salmon Whisperer and Commercial Fisherman Les Clarke
At age 89, Les just bought his 76th consecutive fishing license making him a living legend who has witnessed a lot of change in his long life. I had the good fortune to join him for a night of fishing and asked a couple of obvious questions before digging into more serious matters.
The largest single king salmon he caught was 66 pounds. He mentioned an 85 pounder but that was up in Alaska so it doesn’t count. Once he “caught” an old hand-cranked phone that still hangs proudly in his home in Chinook, Washington. Les designed a special gill net with 9-inch holes in the netting that allows smaller salmon and steelheads to safely pass and catch only the larger kings.
Fishing is hard and laborious work; he started fishing on his father’s boat back in 1941 when he was 13 years old. Les worked it long enough to save money to buy his first skiff and forge his own path on the river. In between sets of drifting his gill nets out, he recounted the old times when the fish really flowed, his single best day brought in two tons of kings. At that time, commercial fishermen weren’t vilified by other groups of river users; a man could make an honest and respectable living. His son followed suit and now fishes the Columbia for part of the year but to make ends meet, he hauls his boat to Alaska and fishes part of the year up there. With quotas getting lower and lower every year Les’s grandson choose another vocation.
Spring Run King Salmon from the Columbia River are the World’s Best Fish.
— Les Clarke
I asked Les which king salmon he preferred and without hesitation, he answered that the spring run in the Columbia River yielded the world’s best fish. He recounted a recent test conducted where a famous chef cooked three kings, one from the Columbia River, one from the Copper River and the last from the Yukon. All were blind tasted by a panel of experts. The overwhelming favorite was the Columbia River king salmon. Les is quick to point out that both Alaskan fish are top quality as well, just not as flavorful and moist.
The Wagyu of Salmon
Columbia River kings have a higher oil and fat content of about 22% compared to Alaskan salmon at 16%. This is attributed to thousands of years of adapting to their environments. King salmon start their lives in freshwater tributaries before heading out to sea for 4 or 5 years. When they return, they stop eating as soon as they leave the ocean. They subsist on fat reserves till they reach their spawning grounds.
The Columbia River is over 1,200 miles long compared to the Copper River in Cordova, Alaska which is only 300 miles long. The salmon evolved to hold larger fat reserves to successfully make the run.
Rex Zach, Yakima Fisherman
Once the salmon are gone, the Indians say they’re next.
— Lynn Hatcher, Fisheries Director for the Yakima Nation.
Rex Zack of Zack Fisheries has been catching fish from the Columbia River for 25 years. His tribe, the Yakima, have done so for centuries. The earliest evidence of natives fishing and living on a diet of Columbia River fish dates back at least 3,500 years. Salmon is a traditional food for the Yakima, and Rex understands that “the fish, the forest, the deer take care of us, so we have a responsibility to take care of them as well.”
Keeping the air and water clean is another aspect of that responsibility, necessary to preserve the fish runs for future generations. The Columbia River fisheries use real counts, not estimates when surveying fish populations. They’re allowed to catch a small percentage of those actual numbers, calculated to ensure their impact does not undermine the runs.
Through these and other sustainable practices, Rex and his fellow Native fishermen can continue catching this traditional food source; an integral piece of their customs and livelihood.
A Yakima Legend of Overfishing and Sustainability
The Creator taught the people how to care for this food which was created especially for them. He said, “Do not neglect this food. Be careful that you do not break the rules in taking care of this salmon. Do not take more than you need”.
He told them if they observed these rules, the salmon would multiply several times over as long as they lived. At first, the people diligently obeyed the rules, and they lived happily without problems. All along the river, there were different bands of people living in their fishing villages, busy catching and drying their supply of salmon.
But one day something strange happened. The people became careless and they neglected to follow the instructions made by the Creator. They became greedy. They did not take care of the salmon. They let them go to waste when they caught more than they needed for their families. They would not listen to the advice from those who were trying to follow the rules. Suddenly the salmon disappeared.
When the salmon were no longer coming up the stream for the people to catch, everybody frantically searched the rivers, but all in vain. There was not one salmon left to be found. Soon they became hungry, their little children were crying and the old people were forced to beg for food. One day, while they were searching the river, they found a dead salmon lying on the bank of the river. They stared down at it in disbelief when they realized what had happened. They began to cry out in shame and lament their mistakes, “If we are given one more chance, we will do better. If only we could awaken this salmon, the other salmon might come up the stream.”
The people called a council and they talked about how they could give life back to the salmon. In legendary times those with supernatural powers could revive a lifeless creature by stepping over it five times. The people tried to use their own spiritual powers to revive the salmon. One by one they each stepped over the salmon five times, but to no avail.
There was a recluse named Old Man Rattlesnake. He never went anywhere always staying off by himself. He was very ancient and all the people called him “Grandfather”. Somebody said, “let’s ask Grandfather to help us! He is a powerful man. Let him revive the salmon!.” A messenger was sent. “Oh Grandfather, would you come and help us revive the salmon? Everybody has failed.” Old Man Rattlesnake listened and said, “What makes you think I am capable of reviving this lone salmon after everyone else has failed? I am an old man, how do you expect an old man like me to possess powers to do the impossible!”. The messenger was sad. “You are our last hope. Please help us, Grandfather”.
Finally, Old Man Rattlesnake agreed, “I will do my best”. He was so old it was very painful for him to move fast. He moved ever so slowly and it seemed like such a long way for one so old. While Grandfather was on his way, Coyote tried desperately, using all his wily skills to convince the people he possessed supernatural powers. He was thinking to himself, “If I revive this salmon I will be a very famous person.” He stepped over it four times, and just as he was stepping over the fifth time, he pushed the salmon with the tip of his toe to make it appear as though it moved. He announced loudly, “Oh, look, my people, I made the salmon come to life. Did you see it move?” But the people were wise to the ways of Coyote and they paid him no attention.
Finally, Old Man Rattlesnake arrived. Painfully he crawled over the salmon four times. The fifth time something magical happened! Grandfather disappeared into the salmon and the salmon woke up and came back to life and the salmon came back to the rivers. The people learned their lesson well and took care to protect their salmon from then on. Today when you catch a salmon, and you are preparing it for eating or preserving if you break the spine you will find a white membrane inside. That is old Man Rattlesnake who gave life back to the salmon.
Troisgros Brothers Escalope of Salmon in Sorrel
To properly celebrate perhaps the world’s best salmon I go to a time-honored recipe from one of the world’s great cooking duo, the Troisgros brothers. Over fifty years ago they made salmon in a sorrel sauce and enduring classic. I could think of no other dish to prepare with this beautiful king.
Columbia River King Salmon with Red Sorrel
One of the easiest and most classic of all salmon preparations made famous by the Troisgros brothers
- 2 pounds king salmon cut from the middle of the fish
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 shallots chopped
- 2 cups fish stock
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 2 tablespoons vermouth
- 1.5 cups cream
- 1-ounce butter
- 1/2 lemon juices
- 3 ounces sorrel chopped
Prepping the King Salmon
- Remove any bones from the salmon with needle nose pliers.
- Cut skin off filet, then cut salmon into two equal pieces.
- Cut each piece in half horizontally, cover in parchment paper and flatten slightly with a meat tenderizer or bottom of a saucepan. The goal is to make all four pieces the same dimensions. Reserve till you finish the sauce.
Making the Sorrel Sauce
- Mix chopped shallots, fish stock, white wine and vermouth in a sauce pot, and reduce over moderate to a glaze.
- Add cream and simmer for five minutes, or until thickened.
- Strain into a clean pot, whisk in butter and season with lemon juice. Lemon juice cuts the fat and adds depth and layers to the mouthfeel.
Finish the dish
- Season salmon with sea salt and pepper. In a large non-stick saute pan cook salmon for one minute on each side.
- Add sorrel to the hot sauce, and spoon immediately onto a plate.
- Top with salmon and serve at once.
It’s hard to believe a dish so simple and easy was the wunderkind of Michelin three-star restaurants for so long. It is a tribute and testament to the careful attention in sourcing the absolute best ingredients to use in your cuisine. The best food in the food is the least complicated.