The fish patties served up at the Wild Salmon, a bar and grill in Lafayette, La., have attracted some local attention, but it's not exactly the sort of thing a business owner with connections to Alaska wants to see.
"The bar on Foreman Drive is named after owner Steve Dimmick's salmon burger,'' The Times of Lafayette reported on Thursday. "That salmon and other fresh fish are caught during Dimmick's six-week-long trips to the Kanai (sic) River in Alaska. You can see the flyer for the hotel where Dimmick stays right next to the bar's beer cooler."
Oh-oh. Dimmick's brother, Matt, owns a Soldotna fishing lodge, and it's illegal for the average citizen to catch Alaska salmon and sell them.
Not only that, if there's one thing Alaska anglers hate more than anything, it's the idea of non-residents packing home coolers full of fish after weeks-long trips to the 49th state. Tourist anglers are regularly fingered as the modern-day leaders of environmental rape, ruin and run -- even if the available data fails to support that belief.
Though about half the anglers fishing Alaska in any given summer are non-residents, they account for only a small percentage of the sport catch of Alaska salmon.
And the sport catch itself is just a tiny sliver of the overall catch. In 2010, the last year for which full sport-catch figures are available, anglers harvested fewer than 1.3 million salmon. The commercial fishery that year caught more than 100 times as much – 138 million.
Nonetheless, the issue of tourists packing home coolers full of prized Alaska salmon -- let alone coolers full of prized Alaska salmon destined to be sold -- is a touchy one. The issue is only made more sensitive by the fact it is all but impossible for the state to enforce this law outside its borders.
"There has to be a crime that is committed in the state" of Alaska for there to be a crime at all, said Andrew Peterson, an Alaska assistant attorney general who handles fish and wildlife violations. Once someone gets across the state line, they're pretty much home free. The idea that out-of-state anglers -- not to mention foreigners -- could be getting away with this irritates Alaska State Troopers and many Alaska resident anglers, who are forever mumbling about cooler-loads of salmon flowing through state airports in the summer.
"It is something troopers have been aware of for a long time,'' Peterson said. Troopers say there are clearly non-residents involved in catching salmon with hook and line here and then selling them in the Lower 48 or Europe, but they don't quite subscribe to the belief of some Alaskans that every European angler in the state is taking home enough salmon to pay for his or her vacation in the north.
But given this background, it's no wonder Matt paused when asked about what exactly his brother was doing at the Wild Salmon in Louisiana.
"Hmmm,'' Matt said, and then there was a long pause.
He was asked if his brother knew about the law against selling sport-caught Alaska fish.
"I'm sure he does,'' Matt said, suggesting that maybe the reporter had heard wrong. He was assured that reporter Matthew Sigur had already been called, and that Sigur reiterated that what he wrote was what he was told by the bartender at the Wild Salmon.
"I don't know," Matt said. "What should I do?''
It was suggested he might find out what was going on in Louisiana. His brother called back from the Southern state shortly thereafter to confess he'd been trying to pull a fast one on his fellow Louisianans. He does come to Alaska to fish every summer, he said.
The website for his brother's lodge, in fact, notes, "...We have a staff that will cater to your every needs. For a small fee you can actually have your fish hauled from your stringer to the cleaning area, cut or filleted the way you would like, professionally vacuum packed, frozen and packed into an ice chest for your return home. Just wait until you show your friends custom packed fish by Steve Dimmick."
Steve said he packs a few fish to take home himself when he heads south -- but none for the bar and grill.
"That comes 100 percent out of the can,'' he said. His fish patties, he said, use an old recipe based on a salmon croquette his mother served the family decades ago. The croquettes, Steve confessed, got old a long time ago. He doesn't eat them. Patties made out of canned salmon can't quite match up to fresh salmon that go straight from the Kenai River to the grill.
"But some people like them,'' he said, and he figured it wouldn't hurt anything "if people wanted to believe that they came fresh from the Kenai.''
Steve said he never really encouraged that belief, but plenty of people knew he went to Alaska to fish, and he never discouraged the idea he was bringing back fish.
"I love Alaska,'' he said. "I've been going up there every summer since 1986.''
He's always telling people what a great place Alaska is, he said, and promoting the benefits of eating salmon, and from that grew the idea he was providing the wild salmon for the Wild Salmon. The new chef in the grill might have bought into the idea a little too much and pitched the Kenai wild salmon idea to Steve. And from there, well, it's a whole load of oh-oh.
"It's almost funny,'' Steve said, "but I understand where you're coming from.'' Which is a good thing because he could get in trouble for selling sport-caught Kenai fish in Louisiana if the state could show he was fishing here with an intent to provide salmon for a business there.
"In general terms,'' said Peterson, who was not given the specifics of this case, "state law makes (this) a crime. We can charge them with an "attempt'' to illegally harvest and sell salmon.
A Southeast Alaska lodge got in trouble last year for a similar violation. Doc Warner's Lodge on Excursion Inlet about 30 miles from Juneau was fined $40,000 – although $30,000 was suspended -- for serving clients halibut they or lodge staff caught.
Troopers decided that since the lodge clients were paying a fee to stay at the lodge and meals were included, these meals amounted to the sale of fish. "Investigators were fed sport-caught fish as a part of the paid package during their stay. Employees of Doc Warner's admitted that fish fed to clients was sport-caught by clients and/or employees,'' troopers said. And that amounted to a violation of the law.
When it comes to who catches it, who cooks it, and who eats it, Alaskans take their fish very, very seriously.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com