(Fifteenth of 15 parts)
It doesn't matter how much I love salmon, or appreciate their life journeys into the North Pacific and back, I have always fished them with numbers in my head. This was understandable when I was gillnetting. I thought about the price per pound and added up my fish tickets; I needed to count dollars. I had a payment to make, crew and nets to pay for, and I needed to make enough money for the winter. This persisted into my sport fishing; I wanted my limit, usually at least three reds or silvers a day for my freezer. I fished diligently until I had what I considered enough.
These days I've been going to the Kenai River to dipnet my red salmon in the personal use fishery. With two people in our household, my wife and I can take 35. I count them off as I catch them. This produces a lot of vacuum-packed fillets, but to take less than the full amount seems like failure. I know this because last summer I miscounted and came home with 34. Even though I already had more than we needed, that last fish nagged at me, wherever it had gone off to.
It was that number 35 that started me thinking about salmon on a fish-by-fish basis. Because of the perceived abundance of these fish and the large limits allowed, I think that I need more than I do. It is one of the things that erode the common respect most of us have for what these creatures really are. I began to wonder how many fish I really should take, and if I was being careless about the ones I did get. Maybe a place to start should be to try to use more of each one. Later I could rearrange my ideas about how many fish I really wanted. I didn't want to fret anymore about how many I could catch, or the overly generous number I am allowed, but how many I should ethically catch.
I went back to examine what happens when I land a fresh red on the beach. It is always exciting, even with a dipnet. That sleek red muscle covered with silver, carrying the North Pacific into the Kenai. Or maybe chrome is a better word, or the color of water and light in that perfect shape. The fish is all life and desperate to get back into the river. It is hard and bright and twisting and bouncing with all its strength. Then I put the club to it. A couple of solid smacks, a tightening shudder, and it becomes a different thing. I have taken its life. I want to think this dying fish, the blood leaking from its gills, now belongs to me.
I felt I needed to take more responsibility for this possession, what a salmon becomes when I catch it and kill it, when it is dead. It's not a fish anymore, or it's a dead fish and I need to think of ice, my knife, what is the best thing to do with it now that it's my food.
If I was going to keep fewer and use more of these fish, I needed a new way to process them. I wanted to do it different from when I was in a hurry to get as many as possible. This time I kept the roe from the females, the milt from the males, and livers from all of them. I cut the fillets into smaller portions than I had in the past. I also had the collars and bellies, something I had considered optional in the past on days when I had a lot of fish to clean. I kept the heads for fish head soup along with the tails and backbones. All of this changed how and when I cleaned them, and it took more time. I soon found that I would need more ice and separate containers for each of the parts.
I felt I was at the beginning of a new adventure. The roe was the first of it; I learned to cure the eggs into salmon caviar. With this I discovered some of the most beautiful food I have ever eaten. I ate them lightly salted on crackers or on my scrambled eggs at breakfast. I found someone who remembered how Karen's grandmother made fish head soup. The backbones went into the pot with the heads, taking advantage of the occasional botched filleting job. I've always known the collars and bellies were special with their extra fat; these I smoked separately after grilling some of them until the skin was crisp. I didn't have as much success with the milt and the livers, so I have something to work on next summer.
So did I learn how many fish two people can reasonably consume in a year? I'm still working on that one. But there was another unexpected result of my endeavors. All of that intimate delving into the salmon's body—the careful egg taking, the milt, collecting livers, considering the head with its fat behind the eye, the nutritious brain, and cheek meat—all of this brought an unexpected connection. While I was being careful with each fish I felt gratitude and compassion guiding my actions. Seeing the fish as more than two fillets, looking inside of it and caring for the eggs and heads let me see what I had in my hands. Once beautiful and silver and alive with the sea in its belly and the history of the Kenai River in its life, it was now bringing me into its story and giving me a personal connection to it. I couldn't see this when I was grabbing for that handful off the top and thoughtlessly taking more than my portion.
I think of salmon today as more of a gift than a given. A gift implies thankfulness. My experiment did more than help us decide how many fish we could use in our household, it started to change how I think about fish and the river. A more intense use of each individual fish made me more aware of these salmon outside of the frame I had always looked into when it was time to catch them. It's the opposite of the big picture, the other end of it. It doesn't have to be fish head soup or milt sautéed in garlic butter but just a change in the idea of salmon, the ones that come to us and the ones that swim past. Both might benefit from a new story.
At every turn I hear scientists discussing the future of this resource. I know salmon need science to survive the future we're making here in Alaska, but science can give us the illusion that we might be able to sidestep some of the responsibilities connected to these fish and their homes, our homes. It can even make us think we can fix what we damage and ignore the things these fish need to remain themselves and not our version of what they are. Salmon can also benefit from a way that is separate from science. For me, using more of the fish gave me a way to make the others, the living ones, more real and important. There were even moments when I felt a partnership with them and this place, an awareness of how much it means to me to have them in our lives and what it will take to have a salmon future.
Michael Raudzis Dinkel is a writer, artist, and wood carver living in Anchorage, Alaska. He studied art and creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage and at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. His most recent work is a mail-art project that combines essay and images to address the degradation of salmon habitat in Alaska. "Shortened History of Alaska" can be viewed at www.michaeldinkel.com.
The Salmon Voices Series is supported by The Salmon Project, an experiment in telling and hearing the stories of Alaskans and our salmon. The project hopes to highlight and deepen Alaskans' strong personal relationships with salmon as food, a source of income, and a way of life. Support for the project is provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.