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Capital Grille’s Chef Michael Hillyer on Copper River Cold Water Salmon

Written By | Jul 24, 2008

WASHINGTON, July 24, 2008 – The area, and river, are glacier born, originating out of Copper Glacier on the northeast side of Mount Wrangell.  It is the pristine glacial waters, aerated and healthy by hundreds of rushing rapids, that make this water, and the fish that start, and end, their lives in its waters, so remarkable.

It is a long hard journey for the Copper River salmon and it is the Copper River Reds being the first to trek back to their fresh water breeding grounds to spawn.

Capital Grille's Chef Michael Hillyer

Capital Grille’s Chef Michael Hillyer

The Copper River empties in the Gulf of Alaska at Cordova, the Prince William Sound.  This is where the journey from salt water to fresh water begins.  The journey is long and hard and the salmon, who do not eat much as they struggle to reach their final destination, where life begins and end, begin the trip with stored fats and oils, and this is why the Salmon of the Copper River are recognized as superior, if not the best, eating salmon.

“When they begin their journey upriver, the fish are fat and filled with heart healthy omega-three oils that they are storing for the energy they need to return to the spawning grounds,” said Chef Michael Hillyer, The Capital Grille, Seattle, Washington. “Everyone waits for the brief period of time that you can get the King salmon, the most prized, because of its rich, nutty and remarkable flavor.”

Over two million Pacific Salmon traverse the river, but the season is commercially short, adding to the desirability, scarcity and cost.   Also adding to the cost to the U.S. market is that the Japanese market has long been the lead importer of Alaskan Salmon.

While Salmon are thought of as an Alaskan cold-water river fish, the reality is that thye spend their lives in the ocean – their time in the fresh water rivers is as young smolts and when they return to spawn at the end of their lives.

However not all Salmon head North.  As recently as five years ago, some 872,700 salmon swam through the San Francisco Bay to the Sacramento River Delta to Spawn.

With scientist estimating that fewer than 60,00 adult Chinook will return, all commercial US salmon fishing off the coast of California and most of Oregon has been suspended. Which means those Alaskan imports will be even more expensive.

Chef Michael Hillyer’s Copper River King Salmon with fresh peas and morrells. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

Chef Michael Hillyer’s Copper River King Salmon with fresh peas and morrells. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

While the Copper River King season is relatively short, there is more than one salmon that comes from Copper River.

The Copper River kings, whose season mid-may to mid-june are the fish that are celebrated with festivals. Chefs in the Pacific Northwest region all vie to be the first to bring this omega rich, nutty and oh so delicious fish to the diners plate.

“The Copper River kings are remarkable fish that should be cooked rare,” Chef Hillyer said. “What makes these so prized is that they have an abundance of oils and moistures, which you do not want to cook out.  It should be cooked to abut 118 degrees for medium rare, and to retain that rich moisture that makes the fish so palatable.”

Following the king salmon run, from Mid-May to mid-August the Sockeye salmon run while mid-August to late-September is time for Coho, or silver salmon.

Sockeye are also prized as being one of the most flavorful of all salmon.

The salmon all live different, yet similar lives.  All “salmonoids” require pure, fresh, highly oxygenated cold-water in order to complete their life cycle from roe, or egg, to adult, returning to the freshwater tributaries to spawn, and die.

And they are all seriously threatened by what is termed the four “H’s” – habitat destruction, hydroelectric dams on migratory rivers, harvesting of rare stocks and competition with hatchery fish.

King salmon are the most prized and they will live up to two years in the fresh water of the Copper River before heading for the Pacific Ocean. Once they reach the ocean, they will spend five, sometimes more, years reaching sized of up to 60 pounds before returning to spawn.

Sockeye Salmon rank second in species and are much smaller.  They spend from one to four years in the Pacific Ocean and their adult waits are a relatively small four to seven pounds.  The Sockeye Salmon, once in the oceanic waters, swim far and wide feeding on natural planktons and fishes before returning the to fresh water of the Copper River to spawn.

Silver, or Coho, Salmon leave fresh water after a year of growth and then spend three years in salt water.  They return to the Copper River to spawn, but will also choose to spawn in on of the lake systems that are fed by the river tributaries.

With time and experience you will find that you will acquire your favorite cold water Alaskan river Salmon, learning to appreciate the increased fats and flavors of these prehistoric fish.

“What makes the Copper River salmon so unique is that you can simply prepare with salt and pepper, a drizzle of a little light extra virgin olive oil and grill,” Chef Hillyer said. “You do not have to mask the fish.  You don’t need to add other flavors, lemon, dill, or sauces.  It is perfect just simply prepared.”

Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin is an award-winning writer and wanderer. She turns her thoughts to an eclectic mix of stories - from politics to sports. Restless by nature and anxious to experience new things, both in the real world and online, Jacquie mostly shares travel and culinary highlights, introduces readers to the chefs and creative people she meets and shares the tips, life and travel information people want to read.