I fished in Alaska for years, as did my father and my grandfather, who emigrated from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia the where his father and grandfathers had fished the Mediterranean waters since before the time of Jesus.
When I fished in Alaska, I ate salmon more than any person on the face of this earth, bar none. Some of the skippers of the Great Depression-era would leave the port with a just couple 100 lbs. bags of rice and a few cans of soy sauce. That’s it for a week: salmon and rice. If you didn’t catch any fish you knew exactly what you were going to eat, and that was after pulling in a quarter mile of net by hand, from sunrise to sundown. My skipper remembered those days so well that sometimes we would have to trade some fresh steelhead to the boat we docked up next to in port for some frozen, freezer burnt steaks if we wanted anything different to eat.
I’ve eaten kippered salmon, breaded salmon, pan-fried salmon, baked salmon, teriyaki salmon, salmon cakes, smoked salmon, salmon salad sandwiches, salmon pot pies, salmon sushi, salmon stir-fry, and frozen salmon on a stick. I’ve eaten live, pulsing salmon hearts and had hot salmon jizz squirted straight from the fish, from his left nut into my into my left eye. I relentlessly piled thousands of pounds of lead-weighted fishing net while pulverized fish guts and giant stinging jelly fish rained over me after having been whirled through a 1,000 lb. hydraulically powered block and speeds that would make the twin diesels whine like babies.
I’ve eaten “five-minute dead” pink salmon, dog salmon, silver salmon, king salmon, highly illegal baby king salmon, albino white king salmon, sockeye salmon, steelhead, halibut, tanner crab, dungeness crab, king crab, and a bunch of mackerel that had somehow ended up 2,000 miles from Asia via El Nino. You name it. We would find fish in our hold that we couldn’t even identify after looking in books for an hour.
It’s not funny when you are wading around in the icy cold blackness of the fish hold at three o’ clock in the morning while the halogen lights from the fish tenderer above barely let in enough light to keep you from banging your head and knocking yourself unconscious on the refrigeration pipes above. Meanwhile you while you are stooped over spraying sea water from a hose to thaw the frozen fish that have wedged themself in between the Freeon pipes, trying to avoid slopping “gurry”(a magical concoction of sea water, live fish, dead fish, fish slime, and fish scales, all at the lovely temperature of 32.01° F and the consistency of a milkshake) into your BF Goodrich Extra Tuff boots.
One night while arm-deep in gurry, I felt something big and hard. It’s wasn’t a salmon and it was BIG. What the hell? It’s wasn’t moving so it was probably dead. I felt more closely; It was hard and heavy. Alaska has sharks. Ten feet long with brown and yellow spots. They have been dumped live into fish holds and had to be fished out. Usually we would wrap a noose around it’s thrashing tail then have winch it up and over the side of the boat. we would then cut off it’s tail and watch it sink to the bottom. It’s the only way. Anyway, I was scared shitless. I felt some more and noticed it was round, about four feet in diameter. I found it’s gaping mouth and flossed a line through its gills and winched it out. It was big, flat, round, and white. It was a “El Nino tourist” from Hawaii or somewhere that was dropped off in Alaska by following a transient warm pool. To this day, I still don’t know what kind of fish it was.
Sometimes we didn’t even eat until eleven o’ clock at night. And when we did, it was only after we had woken up at three o’ clock in the morning and motored for three hours through fifteen-foot swells to the fishing grounds.
We laid our first set at one second after six AM and didn’t stop until our hatches were loaded and we had gone to the tender. Sometimes we were deck-loaded by noon, so we off-loaded at the tenderer and were back out fishing an hour later. Then, after pitching thousands of fish by hand into a basket suspended under a crane, I might finally get something to eat.
But wait! We had done sooo well that day that the skipper decides he wants to salt some fish and pack them into five-gallon buckets so he can put them in his freezer in Tuscon, Arizona! So after I alone spent two hours filleting fish, since the skipper had discovered that I was the best fish filleter he had ever seen in his forty five years of fishing in Kodiak, I remember that I had some fresh king that had been marinating in the fridge. But after the skipper spent $100k redesigning and remodeling the galley all in teak, he learned that he had placed the fridge too close to the stove, which was always left on so it would never keep anything cool.
So I took the warm softened fish out to the hibachi and let it slow cook for about forty five minutes while I showered in the cannery employee showers that looked like something out of a POW prison camp. I slowly loaded with frozen hands the quarters, that I had hunted down from anyone still awake, into the rusty box that would send luke warm water trickling out for a heavenly three minutes, which then would suddenly and unexpectedly turn ice cold sending my body into instant hypothermia. I would fumble with soap in my eyes and slippery fingers to load more quarters. When the water hit my face it would reconstitute the legendary brutal jellyfish that had dried on my face, in my hair, and in my stubbled beard. I screamed like a baby though nobody could hear my cries.
I walked back to the dock, running my fingers through my long hair and still finding fish scales, past the garbage dump where grizzleys would wander at night with blackened singed hair from the fires. As I got closer to the boat, I could smell the fish, but longed only for my sleeping bag that forever stunk of gurry and diesel.
I ate that fish and it was by far the best salmon I had ever had, and still remains my favorite recipe, the same recipe that had been handed down to me by the fishermen of the Depression Era. Those brave men who risked their life every single day and found comfort in the quiet dark nights from their soy-marinated salmon and rice.
Bare, I am sorry you didn’t enjoy it, but maybe I can make up for it with my smoked salmon/halibut recipe.
This really isn’t a flame but I feel better nonetheless.