Me with my Columbia river springer I took earlier this season.
Copper River salmon season has begun, and with it,the media hoopla and excitement over the arrival of these fish in area restaurants. My first Spring working as Chef in Seattle, I was stunned by the customer reaction to the coming of ‘The Copper”. Early in the morning of the first day of the season, the phone starts ringing. “Do you have Copper River salmon?” “Will it be available tonight?” “Can I reserve some for my table in case you sell out?”
If you are a known seafood restaurant in this area, and you have Copper River salmon on the menu, you will be busy for the next few nights. If you don’t, a lot of customers are going to go elsewhere.
You’ve probably heard the story on Copper River salmon, how they have such a long, hard journey from the ocean up the river to their spawning grounds that these fish have developed a higher fat content to sustain themselves over their extended freshwater trek. There is some debate about how much of the Copper River salmon’s purported quality is migration and how much is marketing. I’ll stay out of that argument for the time being.
Captain Ryan’s river boat, at the hotel dock on the Columbia.
I will say that there is something to be said for how long (both time and distance) there is between when a salmon enters the fresh water, and when it spawns. When returning salmon hit the mouth of the river, they are in peak condition. They’ve been bulking up during their time in the ocean. That part of their life cycle is all about stuffing their faces, hitting the gym, downing protein shakes and creatine supplements. By the time they are ready to make their transition from the salt back to fresh water, they’re oiled up and muscular. And just in case it’s not clear, muscles mean meat and fat means flavor. That brings us to the significance of whether a salmon is a marathoner or a sprinter. Once the salmon are in the river, they start living off those reserves they’ve built up. They start to burn up that fat & muscle to sustain them as they travel towards the spawning grounds, and their metabolisms are focused on developing their reproductive organs. Therefore it makes sense that a subspecies that has an epic journey upriver is going to need to build up more fat & flesh than one that is spawning a couple miles from the salt. The Copper River is swift and 285 miles long. No small trek there. However, it’s not the longest swim up river that migrating salmon make, not by a long shot. Our own Columbia river is over 1,200 miles long, with several major tributary rivers. The most notorious of which is the Snake River. They say the salmon traveling that river get so big, Evel Knievel needed a rocket to jump over them. My facts might be a little blurry there, but my point stands.
Of course it’s not just about how far they have to travel up river, it’s also a matter of how long they are in fresh water before spawning. A lot of king salmon are summer returners, some even push into early fall. There are also the ones that get an early start on the process. Spring return salmon, “springers”, start rolling into the rivers in March & April. Those fish need to be ready to last significantly longer in fresh water than their summer run brethren. That means they are even more oily, and therefore better tasting, than the average king salmon. Continue Reading
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