Administering salmon coup de grace -- club them, or bleed them out?

Kevin Klott

KASILOF RIVER -- Armed with a 16-foot dipnet and a fish whacker, a man in chest waders hauled his catch up the steep bank and onto the shore of this personal-use fishery in Upper Cook Inlet. As the sockeye salmon flopped in the gritty sand, tangling itself in the net, the man gave the wooden club to his son.

“Kill it, son, kill it,” the man said.

The boy took the club and did what he was told, swinging it like he was trying to hit one out of the park. The salmon eventually stopped flopping. The man removed it from the net, pulled one of its gills to bleed it and held it for the boy to see.

“Good job, son,” the man said.

As I stood there watching from the river, I couldn’t help but wonder if what this man was teaching his son was, in fact, the best way to kill your fish.

I was taught that using a fish whacker, club or bonker is the most effective way to subdue an Alaska salmon. But earlier in the day, when my brother-in-law — who works in the fish processing business and knows a thing or two about the care and handling of salmon -- questioned this caveman-like mentality, I began to rethink what I thought was the right thing to do. He encouraged me to try dipnetting without a club, telling me that it’s not necessary. He said it’s best to just pull one or two of the gill rakers (those red scratchy things under the gill plate), bleed the fish in the river, and place it in a cooler full of slushy ice.

It’s common knowledge in the fishing community that bleeding a fish by popping its gills makes all the difference in the quality of salmon meat. But after observing dipnetters last weekend on the south shore of the Kasilof River, it seems as though using a club to kill the fish may have become the most common practice.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s brochure on how to be an ethical angler tells the public to “kill it with a sharp blow to the top of the head, and break a gill so it bleeds quickly.” Perhaps the advice should be clarified and say that whacking a fish to death can be disrespectful to the fish and bad for the meat.

“Some people really get a kick out of clubbing fish,” said Aaron Shewman, an Anchorage dipnetter who netted sockeyes from a skiff last weekend. “They’re a soft-fleshed fish, so you’re just pulverizing it if you’re not careful.”

According to a report on the care and handling of salmon, published in 1995 by the late University of Alaska Fairbanks Fisheries Professor John P. Doyle, the way people kill salmon directly affects the quality of meat. The report was written to pinpoint major quality problems encountered by commercial fishing outfits that catch wild Pacific salmon. I found much of the information relevant to all types of fishing.

“A quick, nonviolent death by stunning and bleeding causes the least damage,” the report said. “A violent, protracted struggle has a negative impact on quality. It causes a series of rapid chemical changes that directly control rigor mortis and affect freshness and storage life.”

The key verb here is stun, said Unalakeet dipnetter Wade Ryan, who is careful not to use his fish whacker to kill the salmon.

“I just stun it and pull the gill,” he said. “The fish is knocked out, but the heart is still pumping.”

When a fish is still alive, chemical breakdown and buildup remain in balance, but the moment it dies, the system repair stops, according to the report.

Many sportfishers and dipnetters believe clubbing is the most ethical way to control the chaos of a flopping fish -- plus the easiest way to get it out of the dipnet -- but Anchorage dipnetter Brian Pierce disagrees.

“They die just as quickly if you just tear their gills,” he said.

It’s also important to note that the method in which gills are ripped also affects the quality of the meat.

I was recently told that a fish bled dry (out of the water) is a partially bled fish, and Doyle’s UAF report backs up that claim. It says that bleeding is more complete if salmon are placed in the same water in which they were caught. Doing that removes twice as much blood from the flesh as bleeding in the air. It also slows down clotting and prevents the temperature of the fish from rising.

I asked Dan Bosch, a fisheries biologist for Fish and Game, what he thought about clubbing vs. non-clubbing. His answer was simple.

“I just bleed and chill ASAP,” he said.

Homer area

A new leader in the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby emerged late Tuesday when Oregon angler Ned Friedman landed a 277.8-pound halibut aboard the FV Quintessence.

Anglers are still waiting for silvers to arrive at the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon, said Jim Lavrakas of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, but they are still catching kings. Drift salmon eggs near the inlet channel on flooding or ebbing tides.

Lavrakas also mentioned that lingcod and feeder king salmon fishing has been good, especially around Pogie Point near Seldovia and Port Graham.

Kenai River/Upper Kenai

On the Upper Kenai, fishing for reds can be good from Jim’s Landing upstream and is expected to pick up. A boat vastly improves your odds of landing a salmon. Fishing for trout and Dolly Varden has been good — Battle Creek Specials and other fly patterns imitating salmon flesh are good bets.

The bag and possession limit for reds at the Russian River/Kenai River fly-fishing only area, downstream to Skilak Lake returned to three per day, six in possession Tuesday.

Dipnetting for reds downstream of the Warren Ames Bridge is good if you time your visit to the Kenai River with the incoming tide. Be sure to check Fish and Game regulations before heading out.

Resurrection Bay

Fish and Game biologists report that lingcod fishing outside of the bay is fair to good. Anglers are being reminded that it’s illegal to use rockfish for bait while fishing for lingcod. That means if you catch a rockfish and a lingcod grabs a hold of it, anglers must release the lingcod.

The silver salmon fishing is hot at Pony Cove and Cheval Island near the entrance of Resurrection Bay. Mooching with herring seems to be the ticket. Halibut fishing took a hit recently with the foul weather, but when the weather and the tides are good, so is the fishing, especially toward Prince William Sound.

Prince William Sound

An angler reported productive silver fishing in 50 to 80 feet of water near Falls Bay, which is south of Main Bay. He landed three silvers in about 20 minutes. Halibut fishing is strong, with the top Valdez Halibut Derby fish weighing 203.6 pounds.  

Mat-Su

A nice early push of silver and red salmon has been seen in Jim Creek. Try your luck at the confluence, casting toward the Knik Glacier in the distance.

Silvers are beginning to show up at the Eklutna Tailrace too. King fishing is still open, but it’s pretty much done for the season. A few silvers have been caught at the Deshka River. As of Tuesday, 93 cohos and 678 pinks were past the weir.

Anchorage

As of Monday, Bird Creek is open to fishing. Fish and Game seeded the creek with more than 110,000 coho smolt last year. Be bear aware: it’s recommended to take your fish to your vehicle as soon as you land them and clean them at home.

Ship Creek is open to fishing again (with the exception of chinooks) after a temporary closure. Silver fishing is slow, but is expected to steadily pick up.

Kevin Klott is an Anchorage freelance writer and avid angler.