Fish Tales: Alaska Fishermen Dish Up the Secrets of Great Salmon BBQ

Fish Tales: Alaska Fishermen Dish Up the Secrets of Great Salmon BBQ

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Fish Tales: Alaska Fishermen Dish Up the Secrets of Great Salmon BBQ


Butterflied Alaska Salmon with
Copper River Barbecue Sauce

Alice Bay Barbecued Salmon

Apricot-Chili Glaze for Alaska Salmon

Khaz Bay Salmon with Soba
Noodles and Ginger Sauce

Spicy Salmon Caesar

Zesty Smoked Salmon Dip with Pepperoncini

Madras Mango Chutney

By Elizabeth Short

Commercial fishermen are famous for sentences that begin with, “I remember the time when….” In Alaska, the yarns that follow inevitably weave one plot above all others: the wrangling of salmon–spirited, abundant, and wild—from the grasp of an untamed sea. Woolly weather, mechanical breakdowns, and hatch-plugging hauls included, these sagas commemorate the victories and mishaps alike of braving a living in the last frontier.



Alaska Fishermen aboard the Home Shore



But Alaska fishermen are renowned for fish tales of another kind. Often seen bucking the ocean with a basic propane grill (safer and more userfriendly than wood or charcoal in cramped spaces) lashed to their boats, these hard-working men and women are quick to serve up stories of salmon barbecue, with hefty sides of philosophy on the choicest species of fish, the best cut, the perfect marinade or sauce, and trademark techniques. If you approach a fisherman at the grill, grab a beer first (you won’t have another opportunity any time soon) and prepare for a deckload of staunch opinions and an insider’s view on some of the world’s premium barbecue.

On northern waters or back home in Washington state, Tom Copeland and Jim Kyle, Alaska fishermen for over 40 years, are celebrated for their barbecue know-how. Copeland’s legacy is his Skinny Fish Party (so named because even the thinnest of scraps meet the grill) where king and sockeye salmon from Prince William Sound’s glacier-fed Copper River undergo the fiery rite of passage that transforms their firm meat to meltingly tender flakes. The Kyle Family Barbecue, a monument to the fishing season’s end and autumn’s commencement, draws dozens of friends and neighbors to share another Alaskan classic—brilliant-skinned coho salmon pulled from a labyrinth of misty Southeast waterways.

Copper River Commentary

Picture yourself aboard the 90-year old purse seiner Lizzie, in her small galley where a diesel stove puffs heat against rain-pecked windows. Chunks of neatly butterflied king and sockeye salmon (also known as chinook and red salmon, respectively), smelling faintly of the ocean, gild the cutting board next to a jar of homemade barbecue sauce. You’re thinking of the hot grill wedged among nets and buoys on the bridge when, suddenly, you detect the unmis-takable scent of Courvoisier. Is the galley shrinking or is it merely Tom Copeland—a stout bear of a man with a grizzled beard and gleaming eyes— closing in on you? “I remember the time Cordova fisherman broke their union strike for the Copper River opener,” Copeland says, flourishing his brandy snifter as he leans closer. “We just had to get out there and harvest those wonderful runs—the kings and the reds.” With this story brewing on the horizon, it’s debatable whether you’ll reach barbecue tonight.



Fresh Catch


Anyone who knows Copeland is familiar with the Copper River Commentary, part lecture and part legend, which delineates the tumultuous history of the region’s fishing industry. If you listen long enough, this tale will eventually address Copper River Barbecue Sauce, in Copeland’s opinion the ultimate companion to grilled salmon. Developed especially for Copper River fish by Bruce Hiebert, owner of eastern Washington’s Patit Creek Restaurant, this celery-based sauce enhances but doesn’t overpower the buttery flavor of what is undoubtedly some of Alaska’s richest seafood.

Back home on the bamboo farm he operates with wife Merrie, Copeland finally demonstrates the use of Copper River Barbecue sauce at his Skinny Fish Party. Butterflied salmon is Copeland’s cut of choice. “The whole idea is to get an even thickness,” he says, explaining that he finds fillets, thick in the middle and thinner at the edge, easy to overcook. Copeland generally avoids steaks, another even cut, because they are tricky to debone.

To butterfly a salmon, begin with a skin-on fillet. Debone if necessary by first gently massaging the fillet down the middle from head to tail, feeling for protruding pin bones. Using a clean pair of tweezers or needle-nosed pliers, extract the bones one by one, pulling with the grain of the meat. Next, slice the fillet (perpendicular to the midline) in 2-inch segments, cutting completely through the skin. Depending on the length of the fillet, you’ll end up with about four to eight chunks of fish. Slice each chunk down the center (again perpendicular to the midline) but this time leave the skin intact. Then, simply fold the fish back at the center until the skin comes into contact with itself. The end product should be a piece of salmon 1 inch thick.

Now that you understand the preliminaries, Copeland gets down to business. Looking you sternly in the eye, he delivers his mandate: “Do not overcook the fish!” Nearly as epic as the Copper River Commentary itself, his instructions for accomplishing this mission are prolific.

Here is what you take away: First, regardless of your fuel source (Copeland likes mesquite charcoal from the Sonoran Desert), keep the heat low to achieve a “gentle poaching” effect. Second, remember the five-minute rule—grill the butterflied salmon approximately five minutes per inch of meat per side (10 minutes total grilling time). Third, apply the barbecue sauce after you’ve flipped the salmon to prevent flame-ups that can coat the meat with soot. Fourth, when checking for doneness, be prepared for a sacrifice. “You just have to sacrifice a piece of fish—break it open with a fork and take a look,” Copeland says. “As soon as it ceases to be translucent in the middle, you’re late. Get it off!” In other words, aim for meat that is fully cooked on the outside and slightly underdone in the center (the fish will cook to doneness off the grill).

Milling with other party guests, many of them fisherman, on hammocks strung beneath a miniature grove of cherry trees, you nibble on a saltysweet salmon “collar,” a rich triangle of meat behind the gills that, for aesthetic reasons, is often discarded during processing. When Copeland pours you a champagne-colored glass of homemade wine made from the Madeline Angevine grapes mantling his country fences, a toast seems appropriate. “Copper River salmon,” he says, leaning closer. “You don’t want to waste anything.”

Of Cohos and Kayaks

While Tom Copeland is a Prince William Sound fisherman at heart, Jim Kyle is committed to a region of Alaska known simply as Southeast. A paradisiacal web of channels and inlets flashing with salmon, Southeast is loosely speckled by fiberglass yachts, wooden sailboats, and brightly colored plastic kayaks, too. So strong is the hold of these tangled waters on Kyle that, even when not fishing, he’s still cruising them aboard his stately, carvel-planked Home Shore from which he and son Ben conduct kayak charters that guide paddlers of all stripes within fathoms of brown bears and blue glaciers. Kyle navigates, he instructs, and, yes, he barbecues. “We do a lot of salmon on the charters,” he says. “Served with ginger sauce and soba noodles, it’s a favorite.”

Salmon heading upstream


Salmon heading upstream


But despite the pull of the sea, Kyle has other priorities, too. Although his Home Shore is named for the first stretch of coastline he fished in Southeast, her moniker is also a pledge. “I chose not to be away from home a lot of the year,” he says. “My boat is a reminder that family is important.” You’d be right if you suspected this combination of abode and adventure is what makes the Kyle Family Barbecue, now in its 12th year, a perennial success. This September afternoon, against a backdrop of cedar forests and horse pastures, you pull your lawn chair into a welcoming circle of family, friends, and neighbors as you watch Kyle, a lanky man with a neat gray beard, working patiently on 70 hearty pounds of Southeast-caught coho. Cohos (also known as silvers) are plentiful in Southeast, but that’s not necessarily why Kyle champions them. “They have an excellent taste,” he says. “They’re not as rich as some species, like kings, so they’re a good choice for someone who hasn’t eaten a lot of salmon.” There is another reason this fish is ideal for the barbecue. Cohos, weighing 10 pounds on average to a king’s 20, are thinner—a real asset on the barbecue where overcooking is the number one hazard to a seafood-lover’s palate. “Their fillets are easier to grill because they’re not too thick,” Kyle says.

You heard it: Kyle is a believer–in fillets. After you sample his version, topped with a sweet-hot glaze made from chili powder and apricot preserves (“The right fruit taste really complements salmon,” Kyle says), you are convinced this particular cut can indeed be grilled to succulent perfection. His method? First, make sure your fillet is skin-on. Skin keeps the meat moist and is easily removed after grilling. Second, sear the fillet, meat side down, over hot

Filleting is an art form that takes a good deal of practice to perfect. Most retailers sell salmon already filleted but for cooks eager to attempt it themselves, here are basic instructions: Start with a roomy countertop and a long, sharp fillet knife. Lay the salmon on the counter with its back in front of you and make an incision at a slight angle behind the head (or where the head would be) until your knife hits the backbone. With slow sawing motions, work the knife toward the tail end of the fish, keeping the knife against the backbone at all times. Remove the fillet and flip the fish over. To cut the second fillet, repeat the process, this time slicing from the tail end of the fish toward the head.

Now that twilight has descended over the Kyle Family Barbecue, talk turns to—what else—family. Kyle’s daughter Nichole, once a deckhand on the Home Shore, dandles her 4-month old son, a grinning boy with his grandfather’s long limbs. “Dad didn’t like me going out on the town when we were in port,” she laughs. “I remember the times he made us leave for the fishing grounds hours early—before midnight —just to ensure I didn’t get into trouble.”

It’s then you realize that although Kyle has proffered plenty of opinions about grilling salmon he’s been surprisingly quiet about catching them. A family friend fills you in: Although one of the highest producing members of the Alaska salmon fleet, Kyle isn’t one to boast about his exploits. Apparently, this fisherman isn’t quite ready to give up all his secrets.


Butterflied Alaska Salmon with Copper River Barbecue Sauce

Created by Bruce Hiebert, owner of eastern Washington’s Patit Creek Restaurant, this mild, celery-based sauce fits Alaska salmon perfectly. It is famous in Cordova, Alaska where it was used by the Copper River

Fishermen’s Co-op at its annual barbecue. A long simmer time gives the sauce its melting flavor and smooth consistency, so start it about two hours before you are ready to grill.

The Sauce:

  • 1 1/2 cups onion, finely chopped

  • 1 3/4 cups celery, finely chopped

  • 1/2 cup canola oil

  • 3/4 cup brown sugar

  • 2 1/2 cups ketchup

  • 1/4 cup vinegar

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

  • 2 teaspoons salt

  • Tabasco or other hot sauce to taste (optional)

The Salmon:

  • 4 pounds Alaska salmon (king, sockeye, or coho) fillets, butterflied 1-inch thick

  • Canola oil for grill

In a medium (2- to 3-quart) skillet, sauté the onions and celery in the oil until they are translucent. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring the sauce to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer gently, uncovered, for up to two hours.

Heat your grill to medium-low, leaving the lid open, and brush the butterflied salmon with canola oil. Place the salmon on the grill and close the lid. Grill the salmon for 5 minutes. Gently flip the salmon with a spatula and baste it generously with the barbecue sauce before closing the grill’s lid. Grill the salmon for 4 minutes, then check for doneness with a fork. If the fish is no longer translucent in the center, remove it from the heat and transfer the cuts to a serving platter. If the fish requires more grilling time, close the grill’s lid and re-check the salmon every 2 minutes until it is done. Serve the cuts with warm barbecue sauce on the side.

Yield: 8 servings

Heat scale: Mild to hot (depending on the amount of Tabasco used)

Alice Bay Barbecued Salmon

Originally published in the Alice Bay Cookbook by Julie Wilkinson Rousseau, this recipe is a favorite with Alaska fishermen. It offers a simple and delicious way to serve salmon at a backyard barbecue.

The Sauce:

  • 1 cup butter

  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced

  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce

  • 2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard

  • 1/4 cup ketchup

  • A dash of Worcestershire sauce

The Salmon:

  • Vegetable oil

  • 4 pounds of Alaska salmon fillets at least 3/4 inch thick

  • Garnish:

  • Lemon wedges

Place the sauce ingredients in a small (1- to 2-quart) saucepan and cook the mixture over medium-low heat until the butter is melted, stirring occasionally. Set the mixture aside.

Heat your grill to medium-low. Oil the grill with vegetable oil and center the fish over the coals, skin side down. Baste the salmon generously with the barbecue sauce. Grill the fillets, turning once, until it flakes easily when tested in the thickest portion with a fork. For a fish 1 inch thick, allow about 10 minutes total cooking time. When the fish tests done, transfer it to warm serving platter. Garnish the fillets with lemon wedges and serve them with warm barbecue sauce on the side.

Yield: 8 servings

Apricot-Chili Glaze for Alaska Salmon

This easy sweet-hot glaze, developed by fisherman James Perez (formerly the Home Shore), demonstrates a perfect marriage between fruit and Alaska salmon. Delicious on any cut of salmon, this glaze (enough for 2 pounds of fish) can be used with either grilled or baked fish.

Grilled Alaska salmon with Apricot-Chili Glaze



Grilled Alaska salmon with Apricot-Chili Glaze




  • 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons chili powder

  • 1/4 cup apricot preserves, melted

Rub your salmon of choice with 1/4 cup of chili powder, massaging the spice into the meat. Using a pastry brush, coat the salmon with the warm apricot preserves. Sprinkle the remaining chili powder evenly over the glaze. Grill or bake the salmon according to your preference.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium


The Home Shore fishing



The Home Shore fishing



Khaz Bay Salmon with Soba Noodles and Ginger Sauce

Developed by Tara Zuluaga, the Home Shore’s kayak charter chef, this recipe graces Alaska salmon, soba noodles, and sautéed vegetables with a creamy ginger-garlic sauce. Although this version of the recipe calls for grilled salmon, baking the fish also produces excellent results.

The Marinade:

  • 1/2 cup honey

  • 1/2 cup lime juice

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce

  • 3 teaspoons brown sugar

  • Salmon:

  • 2 pounds skin-on Alaska salmon fillets (chinook, coho, or king), about 1 inch thick

  • Vegetable oil

The Sauce:

  • 3/4 cup dry white wine

  • 1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced

  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced

  • 1/2 cup cream

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1/2 cup butter, cut into small pieces

  • 2 tablespoons lime juice

  • Vegetables and Noodles:

  • 1 8-ounce package of chucka soba or yaki soba noodles

  • 2 tablespoons hot sesame oil

  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced

  • 1 1/2 cup thinly sliced mushrooms

  • 1 1/2 cup sugar snap peas

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

The Garnish:

  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds

  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions

  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced red bell peppers

Whisk the marinade ingredients in small (1 quart) mixing bowl until well combined. Place the salmon in a casserole dish, coat it with the marinade, and refrigerate it for one hour.

Meanwhile, begin working on the sauce. In a medium (2- to 3-quart) saucepan, bring the wine to a boil over high heat. Add the ginger and garlic and boil for 1 minute. Reduce the heat medium-low and simmer the mixture until it is reduced by half. Add the cream and continue to simmer the mixture over medium-low heat (do not allow it to boil) until it is again reduced by half. Stir in the salt and pepper. Add the butter gradually, stirring in one piece at a time with a wooden spoon, until it is fully incorporated. Reduce the heat to low until the salmon is ready. Whisk in the lime juice just before serving the sauce.

After the salmon has marinated for one hour, pour off the marinade and set aside. Brush the meat side of the fillet with vegetable oil using a pastry brush, and grill it over hot coals, meat side down, until it is slightly browned about 3 to 4 minutes). Turn the fillet, skin side down, and brush it with the reserved marinade. Grill the fillet over low heat for 5 minutes. Check for doneness by gently breaking open the fillet its thickest part with a fork. If the meat is barely opaque, remove the fillet from the grill. If the fillet is still translucent in the center, grill it for 1 minute and re-check for doneness. Continue this process until the fillet is just opaque at its thickest part.

Meanwhile, soak the chucka soba or yaki soba noodles in a large (3- to 4- quart) saucepan filled with warm (not hot) water for 2 minutes. Drain the noodles and set aside. Preheat a wok or a medium (2- to 3-quart) skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil to the preheated wok or skillet and wait for 1 minute. Stir in the onion, mushrooms, and snap peas.

Sauté the vegetables over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes, or until they are tender but still crisp. Set the vegetables aside. Add the drained soba noodles to the wok or skillet and coat them with the soy sauce and the remaining sesame oil. Add the vegetables to the wok or skillet and mix them into the noodles until they are well combined. Serve the salmon over the vegetable- noodle mixture and top the combination with warm ginger sauce.

Sprinkle the dish with the garnishes as desired.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat scale: Mild

Spicy Salmon Caesar

This recipe combines crisp romaine lettuce with a spicy Caesar dressing, Parmesan cheese, and bite-sized chunks of grilled salmon. A great way to use up barbecue leftovers! Homemade croutons are a nice touch, but if you’re short on time, you may substitute storebought.

Note: this recipe contains a small amount of raw egg.

The Croutons:

  • 2 tablespoons butter

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

  • 2 cups French bread, cubed

The Dressing:

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

  • 1 egg yolk (optional)

  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed

  • 2 teaspoons anchovy paste or 4 anchovy fillets, minced fine

  • 2 teaspoons hot sauce

  • 1 teaspoon capers

  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

The Salad:

  • 1 head romaine lettuce, washed and torn into medium-sized pieces

  • Croutons (see above)

  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

  • Dressing (see above)

  • 12 ounces grilled or blacked salmon, cut into bite-sized pieces

  • Lemon wedges

  • Freshly ground black pepper (if desired)

To prepare the croutons, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium (2-to 4-quart) skillet, heat the butter, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss this mixture with the bread cubes in a mixing bowl. Place the bread cubes on a baking tray and bake them until they are golden brown (about 12 to 15 minutes), tossing the croutons with a metal spatula occasionally.

To prepare the dressing, combine the first 7 ingredients (lemon juice through capers) in a blender or food processor. Process the mixture until it is completely smooth. Add the olive oil in small increments to ensure the oil becomes fully incorporated into the dressing.

To assemble the salad, place the romaine, croutons, and Parmesan cheese in a large salad bowl. Drizzle in half of the dressing and mix well. Add enough of the remaining dressing to fully coat the lettuce. Gently stir in the salmon. Serve with lemon wedges, freshly ground black pepper, and extra Parmesan cheese.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Zesty Smoked Salmon Dip with Pepperoncini

This smoked salmon dip is delicious accompanied by crackers, tortilla chips, or thin slices of dark rye bread. The piquant taste of pepperoncini adds a unique zest.

  • 8 ounces smoked Alaska salmon

  • 16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

  • 1/2 cup red onion, minced

  • 3/4 cup pepperoncini, diced

  • 2 tablespoons liquid from pepperoncini jar (or substitute lemon juice)

  • 1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce

  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill (or substitute 2 teaspoons dried)

In a medium mixing bowl, shred the smoked salmon. Add the remaining ingredients and stir mixture with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until everything is well combined. Place the dip in a bowl and serve it with bread or crackers.

Yield: 10 servings

Heat scale: Medium

Madras Mango Chutney

Thanks to Arthur Pais for this recipe. Arthur, born and raised in Madras, India, knows his region and certainly knows his food. Madras is known for its fiery food and excellent cuisine, and Arthur says that every home has at least two varieties of chile preserves in the pantry at all times. “Over many front doors hang a string of green chiles to ward off the evil eye,” he noted. This is an excellent accompaniment to grilled salmon.

Salmon with Madras Mango Chutney



Salmon with Madras Mango Chutney



  • 6 serrano chiles, stems and seeds removed, minced

  • 3 large ripe mangoes, peeled and diced

  • 1/2 onion, minced

  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds

  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder

  • Salt to taste

In a bowl, combine the chiles, mangoes, and onion. Crush the fenugreek seeds into a coarse powder and add it to the mango mixture.

Heat the oil in a skillet and add the mustard seeds. When they begin to pop, remove them from the heat and transfer to a bowl. Add the turmeric, salt and the chile-mango mixture. Mix well and serve with grilled salmon.

Yield: 2 to 3 cups

Heat Scale: Hot

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Home Shore photos by Ben Kyle – Salmon photos courtesy Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute
 Food photos by Norman Johnson Food ~ Styling by Denice Skrepcinski  ~ Title design by Harald Zoschke

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