Pacific Salmon – The Story of Pacific Salmon

The Story of Pacific Salmon

“The men were astonished at the numbers of salmon in the river, mostly dying after the spawn and therefore inedible. The water was so clear that, no matter how deep the river, the bottom was plainly visible.”
– From the Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (October, 1805)

Chinook Salmon

Chinook Salmon

Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye Salmon

Salmon images courtesy of Office of Seafood and Office of Regulatory Affairs, Food and Drug Administration, 1993-2003.

Everyone throughout the United States knows salmon; but people living far inland or even along the Atlantic Coast do not know salmon as the people of the Pacific states know it.  It is as if they are magical as they have accomplished and provided great things with their bodies.  They are survivors of the Ice Age and have weathered many storms of nature and still continued to thrive.  They are a saltwater fish which spawns in fresh water. Columbia River and the Puget sound country are especially noted for their fine salmon, and, of course, Alaska.

To cooks, gourmets, and fishermen alike, the salmon is the king of the waters.  The distinctive color of the flesh of a salmon is part of its attraction.  It can vary from a very delicate pale pink to a much deeper shade, verging on red.  In the Northwest, because of the various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, you can find salmon smoked hard in the Indian tradition and salmon smoked light in the Scottish tradition.  It can also be as simple as a barbecued salmon dotted with butter and lemon.

The Indian tribes of the Northwest look upon salmon with great reverence and have special rituals and legends for the yearly salmon run.  They look upon the salmon as life, as the salmon has nourished them physically and spiritually since the days when people first came to this region.  They would migrate to the Columbia River each year during the spring and fall spawning season, when the salmon hurled themselves upstream from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs.  During that time, the Columbia River was so thick with the countless salmon that the Indians simply speared or clubbed them to death from their canoes or from the river banks.  What the Indians didn’t eat fresh, they would air-dry in the river winds to create jerky.

Commercial fishing for salmon began shortly after the arrival of Europeans on the West Coast.  The Hudson’s Bay Company shipped salted salmon from Fort Langley to the Hawaiian Islands starting in 1835, and the first salmon cannery opened in 1876.  By the turn of the century, 70 canneries were in operation.  The first gillnet fishing on the Columbia took place in the mid 1850’s even before the states of Washington and Oregon were founded, and before the Indian treaties were signed.

The life cycle of the salmon is an interesting one.  Spawned in freshwater streams, the young salmon travel to sea early.  Here they live and grow for three or four years. In the spring after they reach maturity, the adult salmon return to their native streams to spawn.  As salmon begin their journey home, they will stop eating and live mainly on the oils stored in their bodies.  In some mysterious way, they orient themselves and swim homeward with precision equaling electronically equipped ocean sailors.  The distances they travel and their astounding return to the exact point on earth where they emerged from their egg sacs is amazing.  They will leap over any obstacle in their way, such as braving dams and waterfalls, hurling itself many feet out of the water until it surmounts the obstacle or dies of exhaustion in the attempt; there is no turning back.  For some unknown reason, the female always dies after spawning.

Types of Pacific Salmon:

There are five species of Pacific Salmon, comprise one of the most valuable fishery resources of the United States.  The spring salmon arrive first, large Chinook in late May and early June.  Next the Sockeye, then Coho, and finally the Chum.  In the winter, during the off season, it is the Steelhead which is closely related to the Atlantic salmon.

Chinook or King:
  Average size 10 to 15 pounds, up to 135 pounds. Soft in texture, very rich in oil, and separates into large flakes, making it excellent for salads and recipes calling for large pieces.  Chinook salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon, with some individuals growing to more than 100 pounds.  These huge fish are rare, as most mature Chinook are under 50 pounds.  Kings run in the spring.

Sockeye or Red:  Average size 5 to 8 pounds, up to 15 pounds.  Has deep red meat and considerable oil, is of firm texture, and breaks into smaller flakes, making it attractive for hot dishes and salads.  These run from late spring through summer and contains less oil than Kings.

Coho or Silver:  Average size 6 to 12 pounds, up to 31 pounds.  Is large flaked, a lighter red than sockeye, and is good in all dishes.  Coho are a very popular sport fish in Puget Sound.  This species uses coastal streams and tributaries, and is often present in small neighborhood streams.  Coho can even be found in urban settings if their needs of cold, clean, year-round water are met.  They run in the fall.

Chum or Dog:  Average size 10 to 15 pounds, up to 33 pounds.  Large flaked, very light in color, low in oil, and is especially suitable for cooked dishes where color is not important.  Male chum salmon develop large “teeth” during spawning, which resemble canine teeth.  This many explain the nickname dog salmon.  It is also said they are called Dog Salmon since they are commonly dried and used for feeding dog teams during winter.

Pink or Humpback:  Average size 3 to 5 pounds, up to 12 pounds.  Male pink salmon develop a large hump on their back during spawning, hence the nickname humpback salmon.  This is the smallest of the fall-spawning Pacific salmon species and is used for canning.

 Whole Salmon on display at a fish market

Favorite Salmon Recipes:

The one cardinal rule in cooking salmon is:  NEVER OVERCOOK SALMON.
Although it is an oily fish, overcooking makes the flesh dry and dense, and it can become quite chewy in texture.

Best Baked Salmon
Baked Salmon Piccata
Fresh Salmon Burgers with Tarragon Mayonnaise
Linguine with Smoked Salmon
Low-Fat Creamy Baked Salmon
Pinot Noir Poached Salmon
Rosemary Stuffed Salmon with Truffle-Onion Sauce
Salmon Burgers with Lemon-Sour Cream Sauce
Salmon with Dill Mustard Sauce
Smoked Salmon
Smoked Salmon & Avocado Cream Cheese Terrines
Smoked Salmon and Goat Cheese Crostini
Smoked Salmon & Goat Cheese Strata
Smoked Salmon in Cucumber Cups
Smoked Salmon Mousse In Won Ton Baskets
Smoked Salmon Sandwiches on Pumpernickel
Smoked Salmon Tartare

More delicious recipes using Salmon.


Far West    Fish and Seafood History    Pacific Northwest    Salmon   

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