Why wild salmon remains king in the Pacific Northwest

Follow North America’s ultimate wild food from river to table.

Photograph by Corey Arnold
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The Gunnier family, of the Yakama Nation, has a long history of fishing for salmon with dip nets attached to long poles on the Klickitat River, a tributary of the Columbia River in Washington that passes through tribal land.
Photograph by Corey Arnold

Patrolling the front of his shop in bright orange deck pants, the fishmonger drums up a little impromptu drama for tourists fingering their wallets. “What’s the matter?” he asks the crowd, putting his hands on his hips. “Never been properly introduced to the king before?” He extends an open hand.

At Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where a ragtag collection of produce, meat, and seafood stalls overlooks the city’s downtown waterfront, crowds gather around comforting displays of food. Stacked like treasure on cushions of ice, several king salmon stare blankly back, their thick sides burnished with a silver sheen. As one of the top three favorite seafoods globally (along with tuna and shrimp), salmon isn’t a tough sell. A couple on vacation from Kalamazoo, Michigan, giggles and points to a 10-pounder. The fishmonger closes the deal with a pretend shake of the fin and tosses the fish theatrically to his colleague behind the counter, who makes a backhanded circus catch before brandishing a large fillet knife that gleams in his hand.

Each spring, as the dogwoods begin to bloom, salmon leave the deep-blue pastures of the North Pacific and return to their natal streams to spawn and die. For millennia, people in salmon country—from Alaska to California and inland to Idaho—have celebrated this miraculous gift from the sea.

To research my book on salmon culture, I traveled the region and spent time with those who know salmon best, from commercial and tribal fishermen to scientists, anglers, and chefs, all of them connected in one form or another to the ultimate wild food in North America.

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Recreational anglers gather at Drano Lake, a side channel of the Columbia River, to catch prized spring chinook.

In mid-May, when the first Copper River kings and sockeye arrive from Alaska, a whole king of 20 or more pounds might sell for upwards of $40 per pound at Pike Place Market; cleaned and filleted, the same fish costs nearly double. Customers hardly bat an eye. Though the prices drop as lesser known varieties pile up throughout the season, the region’s signature wild salmon are always an attraction. These handsome fish capture our imaginations like no other, and the fishmongers have learned to stage a bit of showbiz flair to move their inventory.

While tossing salmon is a ritualistic practice at Pike Place Market, up the slope in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, chef John Sundstrom doesn’t seek attention with airborne fish. Instead, he serves a lightly seared fillet skin-up, a formerly eyebrow-raising practice that is gaining traction in many of the city’s better restaurants. The reasoning is simple, and akin to the tenets of nose-to-tail dining: salmon skin is a delicacy that deserves wider appreciation. At Sundstrom’s restaurant, Lark, the salmon is always wild—never farmed. Fittingly for a chef who incorporates Pacific Rim details into his Northwest food, he came to appreciate salmon skin from his first cooking job, at a Japanese restaurant. “I learned from my Japanese chef to treasure the skin and serve it in many forms. I love the fattiness, the deep salmon flavor, and the ability to cook it crispy to provide texture to a dish. At Lark I wouldn’t dream of taking the skin off. It makes for a more pleasing presentation as well as a full expression of a salmon’s flavor.”

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The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation gather for the First Foods festival in Pendleton, Oregon. The festival honors the year’s first salmon, deer, roots, and other wild foods of the region.

Seattle is the jumping-off point for salmon eaters and anglers from all over the world heading to Alaska and its myth-shrouded fisheries. But for hundreds of years, probably longer, the most revered salmon in the region were actually found to the south. After taking in the spectacle of Seattle, I continue my salmon tour to the Big River, as the Columbia is known to Native Americans, where it borders the states of Oregon and Washington, following a route that would have been familiar to indigenous fishermen and traders long ago. The four-hour drive takes me over Snoqualmie Pass to the far side of the Cascade Range, lush forests giving way to sagebrush-dotted plateaus and rocky canyons. With a high desert wind at my back, I skirt the Yakama Nation and the volcanic cone of Mount Adams before dropping over the lip to see the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge, historically the greatest salmon fishery on the planet.

The spring kings of the Columbia (also called spring chinook, or simply springers) migrate hundreds of miles upstream without feeding, relying on heavy stores of fat to carry them through to the fall spawning. Entire indigenous societies, some of which still exist, were organized around these fish. The fish ladder at Bonneville Dam, an hour east of Portland, Oregon, is the place to see these marathoners up close, and the greeters at the dam’s interpretive center understand the attraction. They direct tourists to the downstairs viewing area first; the turbines and other power-generating equipment on this, one of the most hydroelectrically developed river systems in the world, can wait.

As soon as the elevator doors open, I hear the clamor. Kids and adults alike press their faces to the glass as chunky king salmon, dozens of them, move silently through the ladder, a galaxy of bubbles rushing backward in the current. “I’d like to have a couple of those in my truck,” murmurs a man in coveralls. The fish enter a chute at the foot of the dam because they’re naturally drawn to current. Back and forth they swim through a hard-edged concrete channel that flows like a water slide, gaining elevation through a series of stair-stepping switchbacks, until they’ve summited and reached the reservoir on the other side. The salmon don’t seem to see us as they pass the viewing chamber, just inches away. Their unblinking eyes betray no recognition, and unlike a curious leopard or gorilla at the zoo, they move through with their otherness intact.

The Snake River sockeye will swim more than 900 miles upstream to a chain of subalpine lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho, the longest salmon migration in the contiguous United States. It’s a heroic journey, one that can tire you out just thinking about it.

In Oregon’s Cascade Locks, at Brigham Fish Market, I contemplate the mysteries of fish while ogling silver and red slabs gleaming in the refrigerated glass case. The Brigham family belongs to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, and their store is the first Native American–owned brick-and-mortar fish market in the Columbia Gorge, never mind that Umatilla tribal members have fished here since “time immemorial,” as it’s usually put.

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Fillets smoke on a grill at Brigham Fish Market in Cascade Locks, Oregon. The Market is the first Native American–owned brick-and-mortar fish market in the Columbia River Gorge.

Ask Kim Brigham Campbell where the rich sides of salmon in the case come from and she’ll nod toward the back door. Her sister, Terrie Brigham, explains that most of the salmon are caught nearby by family members and friends, mainly in modern gill nets, though 15 percent of the catch still comes from traditional dip netting.

I find Brigham Campbell, Kim’s teenage son, working a dip net down by the site of the former locks, which were built in 1896 and became obsolete with the completion of Bonneville Dam in 1938. Today a museum and park mark the site, with a concrete-lined channel where the boy is fishing from a platform suspended from a stone retaining wall. He figures he’s been fishing since he was six or seven. The scaffolding that supports him hangs over the river, connected by high-tension cables. With one hand gripping a long pole, he sinks a net 10 feet down, while his other hand holds a line tied to the back of the mesh.

“Sometimes on the pole I get a little tweak sideways or it’ll shake a little bit,” he says of the technique. “But mostly I feel it on the string.” And just like that, he pulls up on the line and hauls in his net. Several shad thrash in the mesh, their large silver scales lighting up like strobes in the sun. He dumps them in a bucket and continues to fish. Earlier that morning he caught a seven-pound steelhead. Sockeye are harder to catch.

“It’s lucky to get just one. Two is really good. My mom got two yesterday.” Spring chinook, the prize fish, require extra vigilance; otherwise, they can do damage. “Your pole shakes. You’ve got to get it up fast. If it gets its head down and shakes, it’ll break the net.” The salmon and steelhead are all filleted and sold at the market. The shad is sold as bait to sturgeon fishermen, who fish for the prehistoric-looking bottom-feeders in the deep pools behind the dams.

Farther east in the Columbia River Gorge, one of the consequences of the river’s power-generating capabilities lies hidden below the waterline. For centuries and possibly millennia, Celilo Falls was the epicenter of the Pacific Northwest’s salmon culture. Native Americans gathered at the falls each spring to catch a year’s supply of salmon and to trade goods. Lewis and Clark landed there on October 22, 1805, noting it as “the great mart” of the West. Also called Wyam, which means “the sound of water upon the rocks,” these falls haven’t been heard since March 10, 1957, when The Dalles Dam closed its gates for the first time and flooded one of the most sacred of all fishing sites in North America.

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Fishermen from the Yakama Nation in Washington fish from their homemade wooden platforms for spring chinook along the shores of the Klickitat River.

Historically, Native American communities from up and down the river traveled to Celilo each spring to catch salmon in dip nets from wooden platforms built precariously over the falls. The fishing couldn’t begin, however, until the salmon had been shown the proper respect. Variations of the First Salmon ceremony still take place throughout salmon country. They differ slightly from tribe to tribe, but the general outline is the same: The first salmon of the year is ritualistically shared with everyone in the community, and its skeleton cleaned and returned to the river and floated downstream. In this way, the ambassador from the salmon tribe can return to its underwater kin and tell of the respect it received from the human beings living upstream, so that more of its kind will ascend and nourish the people.

Once the First Salmon ceremony has been performed—with its rituals of drumming, dancing, fasting, and feasting, which might take place over several days—the fishing season can then begin in earnest. Before the dam-building era, the fishing closures built into such rites had the effect of allowing more salmon to reach their upstream spawning grounds, ensuring future runs for harvest. “Spiritual game management,” it’s been called.

Today, the powwow that accompanies the Celilo First Salmon ceremony, usually held in mid-April at the village longhouse, is open to the public, with a salmon picnic to follow. Traditional dip netting can still be seen on the Columbia and its tributaries. These fishing sites represent some of the longest continuously inhabited places in the Americas and, though the river is no longer the fishery it once was, it’s still the heart of salmon country.

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The Big River, as the Columbia is known to Native Americans, borders the states of Oregon and Washington.

Before leaving the gorge, I stop by the Bridge of the Gods, in Cascade Locks, where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the Columbia River, to try one last bite of smoked chinook sold from the back of a tribal member’s pickup. In the shadow of this modern cantilever bridge named for an ancient Native American myth, I savor the richness of wild salmon, a taste both old and new—and unlike any other fish from the sea. As a tribal elder once told me, “We are not wealthy, but we always have salmon.”

What to Know

Columbia spring chinook season is typically April and May. Check the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for regulations.

Where to Stay

Hood River Hotel — Recently renovated but retaining vintage details, this 41-room lodging in the Columbia River Gorge is on the National Register of Historic Places. Ground-level rooms are dog-friendly.

Inn at the Market — Located on-site at Pike Place Market, this 76-room boutique hotel has expansive views of the Seattle waterfront from some rooms and a rooftop deck for sunset cocktails.

Where to Dine

Celilo Restaurant & Bar — Locally and sustainably sourced fish, meats, and produce star at Celilo, in Hood River. An A-list cellar highlights Oregon wine.

Double Mountain Brewery — Creating notable craft brews, including an oatmeal stout and a Brut IPA, this Hood River brewery and taproom is also known for its tasty pizza. The venue hosts live music acts regularly.

Lark Restaurant — In the Capitol Hill neighborhood, this top Seattle restaurant helmed by chef John Sundstrom celebrates Pacific Northwest ingredients, from oysters and wild salmon to sunchokes and black trumpet mushrooms.

This story was published in the April/May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Seattle-based Langdon Cook is the author of Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, From River to Table. Follow him on Instagram @langdoncook.
Photographer and Alaska commercial fisherman Corey Arnold is based in Portland. Follow him on Instagram @arni_coraldo.