First Catch of Copper River Salmon Will Be Caught By Matt McCallister and Scott Romano, Served at FT33 and Nick & Sam’s Grille on Next Day
Chefs Matt McCallister (FT33) and Scott Romano (Nick & Sam’s, Nick & Sam’s Grille) are headed to Cordova, Alaska in mid-May to do a little Copper River salmon fishing.
“Both chefs will travel to Cordova, Alaska to experience one of the first Copper River Salmon openers in May, where they will board a commercial fishing vessel to fish for Copper River sockeye themselves,” says Beth Poole of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association, who is sponsoring their trip.
Back in Texas, McCallister and Romano will feature the first-of-the-season CR salmon on their menus.
This year’s sockeye catch looks good; it’s forecast to be the 11th largest since 1980. The preliminary forecast for Copper River kings, the most prized of the salmon, looks grim. The forecast for kings is 23,000 fish below the 14-year average of 70,000, which would make it the fifth smallest catch since 1980.
Copper River salmon are prized for their deep red (King and sockeye) or orange (Coho) color, heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid content and incomparable flavor. The wild salmon are caught from mid-May until early September during their trek up the Copper River from the Gulf of Alaska. After living in the gulf most of the year, the salmon are genetically programmed to return to their birthplace up the Copper River each year to spawn. Most of the Kings will be caught from roughly May 17 until mid-June, though an there has been no declaration yet of the actual date the season starts. The sockeyes will run from now until mid-July, while the Cohos will continue to run until September.
Alaska officials only permit commercial salmon fishing on the Copper River twice a week –typically Mondays and Thursdays–and then only during tightly restricted hours, says Jeremy Botz, a lead biologist for the Alaska Department of Game and Fish, which regulates commercial fishing on the river.. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game sets the season to begin at 7 a.m. on the designated day. That day, commercial fishing is permitted for a twelve-hour period then resumes for another 12 hour period the following Thursday. Botz and his staff closely monitor a number of factors each season to determine those hours, including a sonar count of upriver salmon and reports from commercial fisherman about their catch the previous Monday or Thursday.
Right now, only a few hundred salmon a day are swimming up the Copper River. But the Department of Fish and Game predicts that number will jump to several thousand on the first day commercial fishing is permitted, which is h0w they choose which day to open the season.
To legally catch the salmon, says Botz says, commercial fishermen must possess one of the 435 commercial permits issued this year. Botz expects about 450 boats–each possessing one of those permits–to fish for salmon on the Copper River on opening day. More than 90 percent of the salmon caught early in the season are Sockeyes.
Most of the Kings will be caught until mid-June. The sockeyes run from now until mid-July, while the Cohos will continue to run until September.
Look for Copper River sockeyes to appear first at Central Market, Whole Foods and TJ’s Seafood. The first few weeks should see prices around $25 a pound. By the third week of the season, prices drop a bit, but historically the least expensive source for fresh Copper River sockeyes has been Costco, which usually sells the fish at $12.99 a pound for a couple of weeks then drops the price to $8.99 for the rest of the season.
McCallister and I both like to slow cook our salmon to medium rare (I like to sous vide it; Matt likes to poach it).
Botz, the fish and game biologist, likes to grill his simply: “I like a hot fire and just a sprinkling of salt and pepper.”