Copper River Salmon … The Best? (Blog Number 6, 2019)

I’m reading the book Upstream by Langdon Cook. There is a whole chapter about Copper River Sockeye and Kings. They are a marketing phenomenon, touted as the best tasting salmon. The sockeye, because of their bright red flesh; kings of Chinook because of their great size. All the advertising makes one think that there is something special about the Copper River, something which makes these salmon worth the initially very high prices (over $40 per pound). 

Alaskan friends, accustomed to salmon from all over the state, just smile when they hear the announcement of the first Copper River fish being shipped down to Seattle. Alaska Airlines has an entire plane (with a plane-sized salmon painted on its side) dedicated to hauling Alaskan salmon to markets south. To most Alaskans, there is no difference, fish caught on the Kenai or Bristol Bay or Admiralty Inlet all are as good as those from the Copper River. Indeed, some Alaskans prefer Kuskokwim River chums or Yukon River white Kings, or Clarence Strait coho. 

The success of the Copper River brand is due to an astute marketing strategy developed back in the early 1980’s. Before then, Copper River salmon was canned, or shipped in bulk to Japan at discounted prices. Fishermen and women in Cordova were not making much money, many considered getting out of fishing altogether. A few though, believed in the quality of their product. After all, Copper River fish were some of the first to spawn in Alaska, a factor which could be played up. And, they were rich in oils, since the journey upriver demanded it (salmon do not eat once they enter fresh water to spawn). And, the markets were changing; consumer demand for quality salmon was growing and some chefs were featuring it on their menus. 

Creating the “Copper River” brand was the result of three factors. First, Jon Rowley, a marketing whiz out of Seattle got key Seattle restauranteurs to buy and feature Copper River fish. Second, Cordovan fishermen changed their practices to maintain an extra high product quality (immediate bleeding and icing fish once caught in nets, and getting it to processing plants quickly). Finally, Alaska Airlines joined in by flying fish to Seattle and other markets, usually within 24 hours. Thus, consumers became accustomed to fresh fish, and began to pay more for it. 

And, the origin of the fish was noted at every possible turn (menu’s, fish markets, wholesale and retail outlets), such that people knew what a Copper River fish was. 

Today, fresh caught fish transported by air make it possible for people all over the country to know about and enjoy this product. Around May each year, people await this year’s catch, willing to pay the higher prices. And, supermarket chains such as Safeway and QFC always have highly discounted prices, making people think they are getting a really good deal on a “high end” product (which they are). 

This year (2019) the first Copper River sockeye and Chinook shipment (18, 000 pounds) from Cordova Alaska arrived to cameras and fanfare on May 20th at SeaTac Airport. 

Still, the most sophisticated processing and marketing techniques require wild fish, and there the news is not so upbeat. 

According to, one of the best seafood information websites directed at the food industry, this year’s sockeye runs are projected to be 39% below their 10 year average. Twenty eighteen was the second worst year in history with only 44, 318 caught out of a rosy projection of 942,000 fish. 

Much of this decline is attributed to the “blob” effect. 

ADF&G (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) is expecting strong pink and chum runs this year to compensate for the low numbers of sockeye and kings. 

I’ll wager that people won’t be paying $40 per pound in the market for pinks and chums, though maybe people should be. Fresh wild salmon are a healthy bargain at any reasonable price. 

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook, August, 2019

Salmon Eating Songbirds (Blog Number 5, 2017)

I’ve lived next to dippers (Cinclus mexicanus) for almost twenty years. They are year-round residents along Rocky Brook here on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. I see and hear them nearly every day. They stand on rocks, perusing the stream, bobbing or “dipping” up and down on their legs, and then plunging head first into the water. Initially I assumed that they mostly ate caddisfly larvae and other small invertebrates (bugs) which are common amongst stream bed rocks and gravels. 

Then, one January day I observed a dipper “working” in an area I knew to be a salmon redd, a place where eggs had been laid a month earlier. Clearly the bird was feeding on developing salmon eggs. This was not really that surprising; the eggs were just sitting there within the gravel, certainly some were easy to get to, and this was a world that the dipper knew well. 

I thus learned that dippers eat salmon eggs. Then last fall I learned something else. 

Rocky Brook has a small hydroelectric plant just upstream from me. It’s turbines are fed by a large water tank abut 800 feet above it. The tank is fed by a system of intakes buried in the stream bed, carrying water in 4 ft diameter pipes, first to the water tank, and then to the turbines. Since the watershed is relatively small, the plant only operates during the winter, completely shutting down during the dry, usually rainless months from June through October. To start the plant again each year, the operator flushes the storage tank, releasing water into the creek just above where I live.

This water has been sitting for months. It has sediment, algal growth and rusted iron from the tank and penstock pipes. When released, it is an opaque, reddish, mud slurry. Each release event clouds the creek for two to four hours. 

It was during this flushing that I noticed the dipper, right below my yurt. It was standing on a rock by the edge of the creek, diving into the thick muddy water, and coming up with a two inch long salmonid fry (most likely a coho or rainbow trout). Now this was a surprise for me.

After all, dippers do not seem to be adapted to catching fish. They do not gain speed and dive like a kingfisher. They do not have webbed feet and a serrated bill like mergansers. They are technically songbirds, related more to robins and wrens than to fish-eating waterfowl. 

But here, right before my eyes, was a dipper with a little fry in its beak. It couldn’t swallow it, the fry was half as big as its head. So it proceeded to shake it violently, drop it on the rocks, pick it up, shake it some more, and even beat it against a rock. I watched as the fish escaped, got into the water, and then was recaptured ( the fish likely stunned and disoriented). Eventually the little fish stopped fighting and remained motionless on a rock. The dipper picked it up and flew away, so I was unable to actually see how it swallowed the little fish, but I have to assume that it found a way. 

The key here is that the muddy creek water forced the fry to the margins where a dipper could capture one. I don’t think they would fare as well with fry in clear water. But it did alert me to the fact that dippers would eat little fish if given the opportunity, and had figured out how to do this under these unusual circumstances. 

A month later, the creek bottom was a thick carpet of leaves. I thought this would impair the dippers normal feeding, making it harder to find bugs. Not so. Dippers did their usual dance on a rock, dove completely under the surface and worked under the leaves. Eventually it would surface with a worm-like larvae, shake its head violently to stun the insect, and swallow. This was common feeding behavior. 

Dippers tend to be residents wherever they live, even in Alaska. When I was living in Homer, Alaska about ten years ago, I went out cross country skiing along the Anchor River. It was January, there was at least five feet of dry snow on the ground, air temperature in the twenties. Ski conditions were perfect. We followed the river as it was covered with snow and presumably ice below. We came to one spot where there was an opening, and we could hear the river flowing below. To my astonishment, a dipper appeared out of nowhere and dived into the hole. About a minute later it exited and headed off to I don’t know where. I thus learned that this little grey songbird somehow survived even Alaskan winters, staying active, finding food. Most likely it spent most of its time downstream, where the river emptied into the sea and there were more ice-free patches, but it also ventured upstream, looking for openings in the ice.

American dippers are only found along rivers in the western mountains from Alaska down into Mexico. An unlikely water bird at first glance they look like a short tailed songbird. Yet, they have some unique adaptations to their dependence on food right out of the rushing river or creek where they live.

First, their bones are solid, not hollow as in most songbirds. This makes it easier for them to dive. While they do not have webbed feet, they do have powerful wings which are used like flippers. They have a very dense plumage, and a very large preening gland for water-proofing their feathers. Underwater, they are covered by a thin, silvery film of air bubbles trapped in their feathers, a kind of insulation from the cold water. They have very long, sharp claws which aid in grasping rocks. They are able to change the curvature of the lenses in their eyes, allowing them to see clearly underwater. They have nasal flaps which prevent water from entering their nostrils. Dippers have especially high levels of hemoglobin in their blood, allowing them to store oxygen and remain underwater for 30 seconds or more. They are able to feed underwater even in freezing conditions (quite likely keeping a diving hole clear in rivers that freeze over in the northern part of their range).

During the spring, their territorial and mating songs are as rich and beautiful as any songbird. 

My favorite time to watch dippers is during the summer when the young are learning to feed for themselves. Parent birds appear to feed their young for quite some time; the young will be almost as large as the parents, yet remain rooted to a rock, chirping loudly for food, refusing to dive into the water. The parent will dive and bring a juicy morsel and give it to the waiting offspring rooted to the rock. This results in a moment of quiet, before the loud begging begins again.

The chattering of the family can be quite loud and raucous (their voices are high pitched so as to be heard above the usual roar of the stream), and the young seem to need a considerable amount of time and coaxing to actually dive into the water and learn how to find food. That first plunge must be an amazing experience, opening up a whole new world.  

Whenever you find yourselves along a mountain stream, stop a moment and watch the rocks in the water. Chances are quite high that eventually a dipper will appear, bob up and down on the rock, and surprise you by diving right into the rushing water. 

And, listen for its song.  

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook

Answer to Word Scramble from Blog Number 4.

How Many Salmon Does A River Otter Eat? (Blog Number 4, October 2018)

Early October, time to watch for spawning activity. The water level has been too low to encourage fish passage up Rocky Brook from the larger Dosewallips River. Still, at night I heard splashing below me (the yurt where I sleep is perched right above Rocky Brook). In the morning I noticed small “clearings” in the tiny gravel and sand. This indicated some kind of spawning activity. They could have been by trout (rainbow or cutthroat) or possibly sculpins. These resident fish tend to spawn under protection of darkness, and at less predictable times. Adult salmon prefer much larger gravel for carving out redds in which to deposit eggs. These might have been made by hatchery fish, as they tend to behave somewhat differently than the wild fish, possibly testing sites. In any case, I could not find the fish responsible for this activity. 

Then, at midday during the second week of October, I heard a great splashing. There, right below me in the deep pool under the yurt deck, I saw an otter. Then another, and to my surprise, three more. It must have been a complete family. 

Two of the five otters checking me out. They soon discovered that I was not a threat and returned to eating their salmon … head first.

I observed the two largest otters surface, each wrestling with its own fish. They began to eat, starting with the head and working down from there. These fish were almost as big as the otters, too big to have been in Rocky Brook at such a low water level. One looked like a five or six pounder, the other slightly smaller. No spawning colors. The Fish and Game biologist who walks Rocky Brook weekly to count fish and redds said that he had seen hatchery coho without spawning colors in the larger Dosewallips, so these might have been coho. 

The other otters joined in, the little family feeding, chattering, grooming and sitting on rocks. This went on for an hour. I surmised that the otters had herded the fish up Rocky Brook where it was much easier to trap them, especially by a coordinated group of experienced hunters. I pay attention to the world around me, I’m pretty sure I would have noticed such large fish.

Later that afternoon the otters were still there; they were eating two more smaller fish. Eventually they left, leaving half eaten carcasses. These were gone by morning, I’m not sure if the otters or some other critter got them. 

Three days later the otters were back. They had two more fish. These were bright red, clearly spawning coho. I could see the clipped fin, indicating that they were hatchery fish, most likely from the nearby Quilcene National Fish Hatchery, located within an adjacent watershed about ten miles away. After the otters left, I watched a smallish coho female. It had been building a nest, most likely paired with one of the fish that the otters had eaten. Now it wandered around aimlessly, swimming from redd site to nearby pools in a wide circle. The next morning, she was gone too. 

By mid October, Rocky Brook was quiet again, save for the resident trout fry. These are being eaten, one by one, by a visiting kingfisher. Luckily there are lots of them and only one bird.

During the third week of the month, I was talking with the Fish and Game biologist during his weekly walk. When I told him about the otters, he said it answered one question he was having. The previous week he had counted eleven redds above me, between the bridge and Rocky Brook Falls, but could not find a single fish (and he is an expert at flushing out and spotting fish). He didn’t doubt that the otters were responsible. 

Somehow since these are hatchery and not wild fish, I feel less animosity towards the otters. Its the wild fish that I really want to see survive (at least long enough to spawn), and the wild fish runs for the last two years have been dismal. But, hatchery fish are better than no fish. And while raised in the nearby hatchery, they do carry genes from the wild population in the Quilcene River. Who knows, these fish might eventually learn to survive and return to Rocky Brook year after year, becoming successful resident salmon, eventually mixing with the native coho. 

The otters were quite curious, though unlike most other wildlife that I get close to, they did not flee.

I looked up river otters in various books that I have, wondering how voracious they are. A frequently cited study in Alaska (1985) determined (through scat analysis) that at least 3300 juvenile salmonids were eaten by 2 adult and 2 young over a six week period. If you do the math, it ends up being almost 20 fish per day per otter. Juveniles in freshwater would have been small, less than six inches. 

A 1990 study in Scotland of otter predation on Atlantic salmon concluded that during spawning season, otters consumed on average one salmon per night, meeting their daily food requirement with this single fish.

And the family of five I observed in Rocky Brook ate four adult fish in one afternoon. This seems about normal, and they didn’t seem to waste anything, except for maybe the  bony tail.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook, October, 2018 

Word Scramble … What Are These Salmon Protesting? (Answer at end of Blog Number 5)

Salmon In The Garden (Blog Number 2, October 2015)

Rocky Brook


Salmon  In The Garden

As an organic gardener with a keen interest in wild Pacific salmon it seemed natural that I would try to find ways to link the two. Using fish as a garden fertilizer has a long, though probably quite smelly history. Stories abound of Native Americans planting a small fish such as a herring with every corn or bean seed. I can’t imagine doing it though without also attracting bears, raccoons, gulls, ravens and countless other critters. I picture them displacing seeds and upending plants as they unearth the irresistible ripe fish. Still, because fish are such a rich source of nitrogen and phosphorus the results must have convinced them that this was worth the effort. 

Even though I live right next to two anadromous rivers, wild fish are protected. Resident wildlife do a great job of consuming and scattering the spawned out salmon. I am not about to compete with or deprive them. So, buying a commercially produced fish fertilizer seemed like the answer. The obvious choice was a product called “Alaska Fish Fertilizer”. It is organic, natural and readily available; even neighboring Quilcene’s small hardware store carried it. With a name like Alaska, it had to be from wild fish, most likely salmon I thought.

“Ignorance is bliss” as they say. I could have continued to use Alaska Fish Fertilizer, imagining that wild salmon waste was nurturing my lettuces, broccoli, squash and tomato plants. However, a more careful examination of the label gave me reason to pause and question my assumptions. First, in small print it states that “Alaska” is the brand name of Central Garden and Pet Company; it did not necessarily refer to the place. Right below this, in larger print, it says it is “guaranteed” by Lilly Miller Brands of Georgia. ClearIy I needed to dig deeper.

As it turns out, the commonly available product sold as “Alaska Fish Fertilizer” has nothing to do with Alaska nor salmon. It took a bit of searching but I eventually discovered an article by Bill Ginn, “Marketing Coordinator, Alaska Fish Fertilizer”. If you are interested, the complete article is posted on the Rainy Side Gardeners website ( Here are the main things I learned from it. 

The “fish” in Alaska Fish Fertilizer is virtually all menhaden (small, bony, oily and abundant, harvested in the Atlantic and Caribbean). The menhaden go through a process which separates the very valuable oil (which has the most protein and is used to make fish emulsion fertilizers such as Alaska Fish Fertilizer) from the less valuable solids (which are made into fish meal, animal feeds and other products). 

Processed menhadden fish oil is shipped across the country by rail to Renton, Washington where it is further processed (phosphoric acid added to keep pH low, chemicals to control odors), bottled and distributed to retail stores all over the country.

Salmon, as cannery waste, was part of the recipe fifty years ago when this product was first developed, some of it actually coming from Alaska. This is no longer the case because of high shipping costs, changes in the Alaskan fishing and processing industry, and the fact that it is “VERY” hard to mask the smell of salmon waste. 

While Alaska Fish Fertilizer is not from Alaska, it is “natural” and “organic” (the chemicals added to control pH and odors make up less than 1% of the product and thus it meets organic labeling standards).

Oil based fish fertilizers such as Alaska Fish Fertilizer have a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio of 5-1-1 or 5-2-2. Other products have lower ratios and are not organic because they use cheaper materials and processes as well as more than 1% of additional inputs. These products are usually called “amended fish emulsion” or “enzymatic fish emulsion”.

What to do? Is it possible to make the connection between your garden and wild salmon? The answer is a qualified yes. 

While there are numerous fish based fertilizers out there, only three were promising with respect to salmon content. Alaska Fish Bone Fertilizer made in Palmer Alaska is a good product coming from the right place. However, it uses white cod as its base. I would assume it is cod from Alaskan waters, though their website did not state this. 

“Alaska Salmon Fertilizer”, produced by a “team” of people based in Anchorage seemed like a good option. They promote it as “alive” meaning that “beneficial” bacterium (lactobacillus) are added. They have a facebook page ( and a website under development as of this writing. It was not clear how much their product costs nor how to get it. I would guess that the shipping cost alone would make it quite expensive. And the addition of the bacteria makes me wonder why it is added. 

Finally, there is Alaska Bounty Farm in Naknek (on Bristol Bay, North America’s greatest sockeye salmon producing area). They are located right across from the Red Salmon Cannery and thus have easy access to lots of fish and fish byproducts, mostly salmon. They offer four “Alaska fisheries” based products (Liquid Fish Hydrolysate, Fish Bone Compost, Salmon Bone Meal, and Enriched Peat Moss). They have a phone number (520-780-7545) where one can place an order, but again, the shipping costs must be significant. If you are interested, go to their website 

On the website I discovered a page dedicated to old time Alaskan’s gardening advice. It listed local garden clubs and groups throughout the state, where to find gardening know-how for Alaska’s unique climate and soil conditions. Their wisdom emphasized one important point: make do with what was locally available. They usually did not have the option of buying inputs ordered by phone and shipped incredible distances.

So, for me, on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, I continue to look for a somewhat local product which is salmon based for my garden. In the meantime, I continue to use Alaska Fish Fertilizer as the most logical alternative, after all, while the fish may come from the other side of the continent, the product itself comes from relatively nearby. 

And, I welcome suggestions from readers … not everything is on the internet … there just might be exactly what I am looking for nearby, maybe even in Quilcene.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Real Rivers Have Curves (Blog Number 1, Spring 2015)

Rocky Brook Ruminations

Real Rivers Have Curves

I live right next to two rivers. One is the Dosewallips (locals just call it “the Dosey”). It is the only river flowing out of the east side of the Olympic mountains with glacial headwaters. The other is much smaller, somewhere between a stream and a creek. It is called Rocky Brook. Both are anadromous, they support wild salmon populations. 

Living right above the floodplain of these two dynamic natural wonders has made me think about the proverbial “hundred year flood”. It was a term I first learned about at university, studying hydrology and landforms. A 100 year flood is a flood event that has a 1% probability of occurring in a given year. It is also called the 1% flood. These areas can be mapped, creating the “100 year floodplain”, important for building permits, regulations and insurance. Such flood events are expected to happen infrequently, more on a geologic timescale than a human life span.

In looking at my part of the Dosewallips and Rocky Brook landscape, the wide, flat area where the river could rise up to is pretty clear. The question always was not if, but when. This winter I experienced the when. I don’t know if this was the proverbial hundred year flood, maybe the concept needs to be reevaluated with our changing climate and weather patterns. It certainly resulted in the highest water levels I and everyone I talked to around here had seen. 

The reach of Rocky Brook I live by is pretty short, about half a mile. Its upper boundary is defined by a sheer cliff creating 225 ft. Rocky Brook Falls, a spectacular piece of natural architecture. From the falls it has two fairly straight runs; one about a quarter mile through the canyon, due south past the bridge, and then a sharp turn east for another quarter mile where it meets the much larger Dosewallips River. This second reach, from the bridge to the Dosey is my domain. It’s nearly straight course was due to the previous landlord, a logging company owner with access to lots of heavy equipment. He thought that one day this site could be developed into a popular summer RV park and wanted things orderly and predictable. 

The winter of 2015’s back-to-back flood events left this lower stretch changed. Rocky Brook reclaimed an earlier channel and added a beautiful sinuous curve to a parallel existing channel. Instead of one stream, there are now two. Both should be good salmon habitat if there is enough water to maintain them during the critical dry summer months. The new channel (which is really the old original channel before logger landscaping decided otherwise) has excellent gravel size for fish spawning. 

The other, more sinuous reach now has a series of deeper pools where little coho salmon like to hide out. Textbooks say that rivers curve to “release” some of their flooding energy, carving out banks and deep pools on the outside of the curve and creating shallow areas with little beaches on the inside of the curve. This is their natural form. Look at a map of most rivers and you will see some incredible backing and forthing, sometimes almost forming a nearly complete circle. 

The Dosewallips River did the same thing, only on a much grander scale. It too had a pretty straight alignment along my property. It too, added cut banks and rocky beaches as it took on a more sinuous path. It too is becoming more diverse, diversity which translates into good fish habitat.

Of course, all that flooding must have been a challenge for all the alevins (tiny salmon that had just emerged from eggs and were living within the gravel) as well as the year-old salmon fry. I can only imagine how they coped with the increased currents, rolling rocks, and water choked with silt, sand and debris. I’m sure they found little back wash and slack water areas to hunker down in and ride out the storm. Some of the old spawning and hanging out areas are gone, but new ones were created. This is how nature works when we leave her alone. 

All in all, the whole landscape looks a bit raw and unruly. But it also feels renewed, more natural, wilder. And, there is something about the beauty of a curve which is quite pleasing to the eye. My eyes are taking notice. 

Rocky Brook, Spring 2015