We were fishing the Prince William Sound in South Central Alaska for chum, or dog salmon.
They’re called dog salmon because people used to feed it to their dogs. Chum is also a traditional dried winter food, but I didn’t like it that much. The flavor is muted. Chum is fishier than king salmon, and when you press your fork into it, it doesn’t flake as nicely.
I grew up listening to my mom’s stories of commercial fishing for king salmon, the shifts so long she would fall asleep on piled nets. I was a busboy at a pizzeria in Anchorage back then, so I jumped at the chance to quit and fish on a salmon seiner.
Before then, my mom worked me hard at home and I’d worked hard at jobs in town, but I was mostly judged on how nice I was to my sister, how friendly I was with customers, with co-workers, at pizzerias and ice cream shops.
With Brian King, my captain, it was different. It was all about the work. When I arrived at Cordova’s tiny airport baggage claim, a family friend invited me to stop by their home at some point, but Brian answered for me, “He’s going to be busy.”
His boat, Carmen Rose, was named after his daughter, and he walked the deck with a tall and lanky gait, wearing a scruffy baseball ball cap. If he wasn’t in California or Alaska, he was living in a bungalow on the coast of Thailand.
It’s not like Brian was a strange food hippie that liked to hang out on the water—he was a good fisherman. He understood the way fish moved through the bay. Halibut, for instance, swim with chum, and king salmon swim with halibut.
People fish for kings with a different kind of net, but we’d still get them sometimes. When we’d pop the net, Brian would spot one from the bridge and yell “King!” That’s when I’d jump into the pile of pulsating fish and tackle the salmon. Brian would come down and run a piece of line through the fish’s gills and drop it into the hold. He’d tie the other end to a rail on the deck.
We ate in a tiny kitchen that had a banquet on either side of a small table. Brian didn’t talk much, but he was steadfast in always doing things the way he thought was right—precise and safe. If the fishing wasn’t good he’d knock off work early to cook a big dinner. “You have to eat well out here,” he told me. He was a serious cook, and the only captain I knew who cooked the meals on his own boat.
We ate king salmon salad throughout the day, weeks, months. It was extravagant, sure, but we had so much salmon we could hardly eat it all.
“You can’t work hard if you’re not eating well,” he would say.
After lunch, we’d sit out on the nets. They were mostly dried out, but we were wearing our rain gear. We wore our rain gear all the time, even when it wasn’t raining. Micah, our skiffman, spent time in Indonesia and passed around beedies, thin cigarettes rolled in grape leaves. We’d be anchored five hundred yards from shore, stuffed of salmon salad under the last of the late evening Alaskan sunlight.
After a month on the boat, my replacement showed up. I could have gone onto another boat, but I was ready to go home. I wanted to see my friends back in Anchorage, to go to parties and bonfires on riverbanks – things teenagers do. But I kept in touch with Brian.
The next winter, in 2004, he called me and asked me to come on the boat the following summer. It was the winter a tsunami erupted in the Indian Ocean. Brian had been vacationing on the coast of Thailand when an earthquake erupted off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Waves taller than buildings destroyed the shores of Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.
Brian King, my captain, was never seen again, and without him, I never went back to Cordova, that summer or otherwise. When I got the call from my mom, I was sad he was dead, but I was also really disappointed I wouldn’t get to spend any more time on his boat with him. It had been the first time I was judged solely on the work I did and how well I did it.
Recipe for Salmon Salad
I’d take a steak-size piece of king salmon and put it in a bowl; add a tiny scoop of Hellmann’s, salt, pepper, and then capers. Brian always had capers. The key was to mix it all up, but not mash it. The way the muscles of a king salmon flake off the bone is beautiful thing, and I’d separate the flakes from each other into medallions. Our bread wasn’t special: just supermarket wheat. I toasted slices for myself and slathered them with the cold salmon salad.
Edited by True contributor, Craig Cavallo