"First Alaskan Salmon Caught" or "the Sushi Story"

Copyright Alan R. Henderson February 25, 2004 (minor revisions October 1, 2012)

During the my first summer in Alaska, I fished around 10 times for salmon and I didn't catch anything but a cold. The people I had fished with had hardly ever caught fish before, so, the second summer I was determined to catch some salmon. I was so serious, that I went out and bought a 21 cubic foot chest freezer for all the fish I was going to catch. I spent 2 weekends in the middle of June at the Russian River trying to catch some Sockeye "Red" Salmon Sockeye to no avail. Finally on the Friday, June 23, 1979 I left Anchorage, by myself, to go fishing for the weekend. I couldn't get any friends to go, but since there were thousands of anglers present on any given day during fishing season, I knew I wouldn't be alone. The Russian River is around a 2 and 1/2 hour trip from Anchorage depending on the weather and the traffic. I got to the river around 10:00 pm on a fairly nice day, over-cast, but without the normal drizzling rain. I took the 1/2 mile trek to the confluence of the Russian and Kenai Rivers. I found a great spot on the northeastern side of the Russian River about 50 feet from the Kenai River.

Russian River Facts. If you have never fished "Elbow to Asshole", you're in for a real fishing treat. There are people lined up, 2-10 feet apart for a mile or two. Your "elbow" is typically next "to" at least one "Asshole". Etiquette says as soon as you feel a fish on your line, you yell "Fish ON!". Everyone around you, within 100 feet or so, is supposed to reel their lines in so that they don't tangle your line. I've seen 4 people with 1 fish hooked, so the occasional fight is not unusual. Especially since it is hard to catch some of these fish. The "Asshole" is the guy next to you who doesn't reel his line in, inevitably tangles your line and helps you to lose your fish.

So, here I am fishing for several hours into the "dark" period of the day. The sun is up the longest on June 21st. The sun goes down around midnight and comes back up around 2:30 am. On a clear or slightly overcast day the sunset lasts from around 11:00 pm to 3:30 am. It's just dark enough that you can barely see to tie your fly on after you've snagged the bottom or tangled with an "Asshole".

After the sun was back up I was getting tired of not catching fish. There was a man standing beside me who kept catching salmon and to my disbelief, kept letting them go. Another man on the other side of him, who was definitely a tourist, kept asking what his secret was to catching fish. My immediate neighbor said that he made his own flies and used a special "banana-daiquiri flavored" lacquer to bind the fur to the hook. Note - the only lure allowed on the Russian River is a single hook, with fur or feathers, tied by string, and dipped in lacquer to hold it together. I knew he was kidding, so I decided to just stop and watch him. I put my rod in my backpack and stood watching for a half hour. You don't ever leave your spot unless you want to wait in line for someone else to move. The man next to me looked at me and asked "have you figured out how to catch salmon yet?". I looked at him and said "I think I understand". I started fishing again and within 15 minutes I had hooked a salmon. As soon as I landed the salmon, the man next to me said "Let me see your salmon". He turned it over and then said "You might as well let that one go". The "tourist" on the other side of the man was almost crying and pleading for me to let him have the fish. But with a little reluctance I let the salmon go. I started fishing again and minutes later I had another salmon. Again my neighbor looked at the fish and said "you'd better let that one go too". I looked at him and asked "Why?". He said, "The first fish was an immature female with little to no eggs and the second fish is a male. If you are wanting females for their eggs, you'll have to keep fishing". Salmon eggs are one of the best lures to catch other salmon, although they are not allowed on the Russian River. I started fishing again and within 2 hours I had caught 6 more fish, 3 of which were females fat with eggs.

I put my fish in my backpack and headed up to the cleaning station. This is a location where a ranger stands with a shotgun to protect anglers while they clean their fish. The bears are big-time scavengers and love a free meal. I started cleaning the fish by slitting the belly and removing the entrails. As I finished the first fish, a very short and quite old Japanese man walked up and stood there while I pulled the 2 salmon roe out of the salmon. The man said something in Japanese. I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head, since I couldn't understand him. He took out his wallet, pulled out 5 dollars and pointed to the eggs. I guessed he wanted to buy the salmon roe, but since they were my first eggs and I wanted them for fishing. I shook my head no and pantomimed putting the eggs on a hook and casting. He just smiled and continued standing there. I continued cleaning the 1st fish and started on the second fish. The little Japanese man stood there and watched me. I finished the other 2 fish. While I was clearing the fish I had put the 6 salmon roe on a rock to dry out the enclosing egg sack. This makes the egg sack a little tougher, so they hold together better for fishing. The Japanese man took 5 more dollars out of his wallet and pointed to the 6 roe. I shook my head no. He took out 10 more dollars and pointed to the salmon roes. I still shook my head no. He held the 20 dollars and pointed to 4, then 2 roes as I shook my head no. He put the money back in the wallet and put the wallet away. After I had finished cleaning the insides of the 3 fish and the little Japanese man patted me on the back, pointed at the clean fish and smiled. I guessed he was praising me on my cleaning abilities, so I bowed to him. I had plastic baggies ready for the salmon roe and started putting 1 roe in each baggie. When I had finished putting the eggs away, I looked at the man, finally gave in and handed him one of the baggies. He reached for his wallet to give me money, but I stayed his hand and shook my head. I figured he was nice enough, the least I could do was to give him one of the salmon roe. He scurried off, while I sauntered back to my car with a large smile on my face.

It took a while to get back to the car since I had to stop and talk to everyone on the way to the street fish. I don't call what I said as bragging, but that's just my opinion. When I finally got back, I started packing the fish away in the coolers full of ice. I pulled the remaining 5 salmon roe out of the baggies and put them all on a tray. I put the tray on the dash of my car to dry out in the sun. I was planning on turning them regularly to help dry them out. I finally finished getting my gear stored, so I opened a beer to celebrate. I was just getting ready to leave when the little Japanese man came running up. He had a really beautiful old-looking little dish with the salmon eggs wrapped in a greenish substance (seaweed) and a very small bowl with a greenish-brown liquid. He pantomimed picking the eggs up, dipping them in the liquid and putting them in his mouth. I though that was the most disgusted thing I had ever seen eaten. But since my sojourn in Venezuela and Europe, I had decided that if someone in the world ate a particular item, it couldn't be too bad. So, I picked up the eggs, dipped them in the liquid, popped them in my mouth and started chewing. First the flavor of the eggs hit my taste buds. If you have never had salmon eggs before, imagine the fishiest flavor in the world and multiply that by 1000. That is close to the taste of fresh sockeye salmon eggs. Second, I had never had wasabi, so I had no idea how hot it was to eat. A very pungent, hot and green Japanese condiment made from the root of the herb Eutrema wasabi. I was not used to hot foods at that time and was totally unprepared. I thought I was going to die. I didn't know which was worse, the extremely fishy flavor of the eggs or the heat of the wasabi. It was everything I could do to just swallow the eggs. I handed the little plate back to the man and bowed to him. He smiled and walked away. So I took the barely drunk beer and downed it in one big swallow. I made sure the man wasn't watching, opened another beer and rinsed my mouth out for several minutes. That wasn't enough, so I opened another beer and rinsed my mouth out again. I ate a little of everything I had with me, trying to get the flavor out of my mouth. I finally got in my car and drove home, happy that I had caught the fish, but unhappy that I had eaten the fish eggs. It was really nice to get home Saturday afternoon.

Sunday evening I had several friends over to eat the fresh salmon when the door bell rang. I went to the door and there was the little Japanese man from the Russian River with a young Japanese man. I asked them "What can I do for you?". The young man said "My grandfather was so appreciative that you gave him the salmon roe, he wants to take you out for sushi". I asked the young man if his grandfather understood English and he said no. I looked at the young man and said "Honestly, if that is sushi, I really would rather not eat any more". The young man responded with a laugh "I'm sorry, but salmon eggs are the worst flavor. Most sushi are not like that. Sushi has 3 main features. Flavor - from mild to wild, Texture - from melt in your mouth to rubber-like, and Presentation. You had the strongest flavor of them all". I shook my head and said "I'm sorry, but I'm having those salmon I caught for dinner tonight with friends. If you would like, you and your grandfather are more than welcome to join us". The young man spoke with his grandfather in Japanese, then replied "Thank you, but we will not intrude". As they started to leave, I asked "By the way, how did you find me?". The young man said "My grandfather wrote down your license plate and since I work for the police, it was quite easy". I went back in and had the best salmon dinner of my life.

The next day when I got home from work, there was the grandfather and the young Japanese sitting on my doorstep. The young man said "my grandfather goes home tomorrow to Japan". "He wants to take you to eat sushi and won't take no for an answer". "And by the way, I'll make sure you don't eat the unpalatable sushi". Since I did not have plans for the evening, I decided to follow my rule of trying new ethnic foods. We went to a little sushi bar in Anchorage. I believe it was called Arigato on Spenard Road. The place had 8 seats at the sushi bar and 3 tables. After numerous pieces of sushi and I don't remember how many shots of Sake, I was hooked on sushi. To this day, sushi is my favorite food in the world. At least so far, since there are still a lot of foods out there that I haven't tried yet.

The morals of this story are -
1. Don't give up. The fish are out there waiting to be caught.
2. Clean your fish well. You never know who might be watching.
3. Do not decline to try or retry new foods, especially after a bad first experience. The second helping might be really great.
4. Beer does not wash bad flavors out of your mouth.

Web sites I found via Google with more information and photos of the Russian River in Alaska - 
Last but not least, see the pictures on this website Alaska 08292010

Notes -
Text in italics is sidebar information about Alaska and Alan's adventures.