What does the first king of the season mean? To this group of old friends and fishermen, it's storytelling, cracking wise and musing about the cycle of fishing and life.
Celebrating the first salmon of the season is a long and important tradition in Bristol Bay. Last Thursday, we turned Hannah Colton around on her way to work because we heard some boys had caught theirs on the beach and were going to take one to an elder. She followed along, and brought this report…
A text message from Robyn Chaney told me her boys had caught three kings on the morning tide. They and their grandpa were going to deliver them. Here’s Triston Chaney:
"Yeah, we caught three this morning… gave one to my mom, kept one, and then one to Ofi."
"So why do you bring one to Ofi?"
"'Cause we always give some of what we catch to elders. And then if you give some to elders then you’re gonna catch more."
Hyalmer "Ofi" Olson is an elder who has left a mark on Bristol Bay as few have. He fished these waters for some five decades, starting as a kid in the sailboat days
Among other leadership roles, Ofi was longtime director, CEO, and president of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. But he’s retired from all that now.
Ofi is in bad health. His kidneys are failing, and these days it’s tough to get too far from the house.
He was sitting on the couch when the Chaney boys and his old friend Robin showed up with that king.
"The boys caught you a king salmon!" Robin told him.
"King Salmon?" asked Ofi. "Oh yeah, small one."
"We caught it this morning!"
Ofi sized up the boys who brought him the fish and gave Robin a nod.
"Thank you Robin, boy, that’s gonna be a treat and a half..."
Later that evening, some old friends and fishermen came together to eat that fish with Ofi. They gathered around a humble table at Jerry Liboff’s house, off Chuthmuk Road -- named for Liboff and his patchy clothes.
Dave Bendinger grilled the fish for an hour on top of a cedar plank. Ofi again asked for the recipe:
“So you put the plank on the grill," Dave explained. "Wet it first, let it cook maybe ten minutes, then flip it so it’s charred, put the salmon on top skin side down. Lid down, let it cook.”
Set netter and Russian Orthodox priest Father Victor Nick stopped by for a bite and gave a blessing.
“Okay before we eat too much more, why don’t you bless the meal?"
"You don’t want any?"
"Oh, maybe a little bit…”
Ofi said the fish was small – but there was plenty of to go around. And it was the best.
“The first king melts in your mouth.”
Liboff asked Ofi about the first kings when he was a kid…
“That first king salmon was a big deal even then right? Your mama and grandma, how’d they cook it?"
"Well the head and the tail, and the eggs, they make chowder out of it," said Ofi. "And out of the collars. And then you fry the steaks, either fried or boiled. Good. Every bit of the king salmon was used, nothing left but the bones.”
The night went on and around the table they sat. They talked boats, they talked prices, they talked nets and canneries and can sizes. They cracked jokes and talked about fishermen from the old days.
And they talked about getting older.
“The greying of the fleet. The last of the hardasses trying to hang on. Him, Ofi put up the white flag a couple years ago. I’m hangin in there..."
"I don’t wanna be the richest man in the graveyard! *laughs* Maybe Skagerrack is bumpin somebody else for that position.”
That’s Ofi, giving Skagerrack skipper Paul Friis-Mikkelsen a hard time. Friis-Mikkelsen took a hard fall a few weeks back and may not fish this season.
"You know, at this point, it’s not really about the money so much. It’s just good being a part. You know, it’s a lifestyle. If I was well, I’d still be out there floatin’ around too. The thing I was trying to say is, it’s like being a part of this whole cycle."
The whole Bay is a cycle…The fish run out and back, tides go out and in, and nets need mending year after year. And people gather around the table each summer to tell stories and to fellowship around the first king salmon.
“What I miss, Dave, is when I was small, young guy, even my first few years in high school, I used to go with my dad and some older people and, say we went camping or something. And then when the light went out, you stay there and listen to stories. Boy, interesting. Lots of stories, hunting stories, stories about ghosts. Sometimes I felt a little scared, but I never seen anything in my life. Never heard anything.”
With a twinkle in his eye, Ofi had a captive audience… and we all kept nibbling on that fish for hours after it got cold.