Trolling for ’the very best salmon in the world’

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — The coho salmon that Jeremy Brown cradles in his hands looks as though he just pulled it from the heaving North Pacific waters where he makes his living as a troll fisherman.

Its sides flash mirror-bright. Not a scale is missing. To look at it, one would never guess this fish has been thawed. Minutes after it was hooked last year off southeast Alaska, it was bled and gutted, then quickly chilled before freezing.

Brown says a fish processed in this way is likely to be better than “never frozen” salmon sold in supermarkets and seafood shops.

“This is about as good as salmon gets,” Brown says. “The very best salmon in the world is all frozen.”

The key to quality, he says, is meticulous handling of each fish. Troll fishers like Brown catch their fish one at a time, using metal lures dangling from poles. The poles stand straight up when Brown’s 42-foot vessel, Barcarole, is moored at Squalicum Harbor or en route to the fishing grounds. Once on those grounds, the poles are lowered, jutting out at a 45-degree angle to trail lures in the water.

The lures Brown uses are painted in an optic green and orange pattern that doesn’t seem to mimic any natural food a salmon would encounter, but they work. The fish he catches in deep sea waters are gorging themselves as they near the climactic stage of their life cycle, building up the fat reserves they need to propel themselves up rivers to spawning grounds.

When Brown catches a salmon, he stuns it with a blow to the head, guts it, and inserts a catheter in a major blood vessel near the head.

Then he gently pumps in water to flush the blood out of the fish.
“With salmon, blood is really the enemy,” Brown says.

His goal is to get the fish on ice and well-chilled within 30 minutes, to prevent any deterioration until he can land his catch at a processing plant for freezing.

“When it’s thawed out, it’s still 30 minutes old biologically,” he says.
Salmon that has been processed with less attention to detail will show blood inside the body cavity along the spine. Brown says there’s nothing wrong with buying and eating such fish, but it probably won’t have the same level of quality.

“If the blood’s left in the fish, you can taste it,” he said.

Salmon is a delicate food that will bruise as easily as a banana if it gets rough handling. When Brown picks up a thawed fish, he holds it with both hands, one at the head and one just above the tail. He’s flabbergasted at the thought of Pike Place Market fishmongers tossing fish around for the tourists.

“That fish is going to be mush,” he says.

Brown, 52, is a native of Cornwall in the United Kingdom, where his father operated one of the first organic farms in that country, raising sheep and growing fruits and vegetables.

On a visit to the United States, he met and later married a Lynden girl, Jill Likkel. The couple settled in this area and Brown was drawn to try to make a living fishing.

“I grew up on a farm,” Brown said. “I swore I was never going to work that hard. I guess this was my fate, to end up doing this. It’s the greatest job in the world.”

This month, Brown planned to be 30 to 40 miles off the Washington coast, trolling for salmon on trips that can last three to four days. He is his own captain and crew, and he’ll grab his naps as circumstances permit.

He insists it’s not as dangerous as it sounds, especially since vessel traffic control systems have been improved in recent years. Freighters crossing the fishing grounds are confined to sea lanes and warned to be on the lookout.

“It used to be that the log ships would come charging down the coast, and they didn’t much care what was in the way,” Brown says.
And when he’s riding the North Pacific swells on the Barcarole, he’s out of the reach of the many dangers that people face each day on land.

“I don’t go near a freeway for six months,” he says.

Brown is a member of the Bellingham-based Seafood Producers Co-op, which processes and markets halibut and sablefish as well as salmon caught by its 500 members. In addition to the salmon he catches on his solo coastal trips in the Barcarole, he also crews on a friend’s long line boat, harvesting halibut and sablefish. Long lining is also a hook-and-line method that allows fishermen to process fish as they are caught.

Taking the extra effort also means that fishermen get a better price for their catch, at a time when fishermen outside Alaska can no longer harvest salmon by the millions as they did decades ago.
“The market’s good,” Brown said. “The outlook for salmon in the lower 48 is not good. That has nothing to do with fisheries. It has to do with water and development.”

As he sees it, delivering extra quality is the only way for the fisher or small farmer to make a living in the modern world.

“We can’t compete with corporate agriculture or corporate aquaculture,” he says. “But we can produce a superior product.”
Brown acknowledges that fish caught in small quantities and processed in a labor-intensive way isn’t going to be cheap for the consumer, but the quality is worth the money.

“Generally speaking, the quality has gotten much better,” Brown says. “There’s much better quality reaching the plate. Yeah, the price has gone up, but I think it’s a good tradeoff. We’re getting a much bigger share of the value of the product than we used to.”

Fishing is one of those things people do for the life, not for the living.
“It’s an adequate living, but it’s a wonderful life,” he says. “That counts for a heckuva lot.”

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