Introducing Zach Hill – Alaskan Fisherman and All-Around Great Guy

I’m really excited to introduce you to my buddy, Zach Hill, a fisherman from Alaska. As you know, I’ve done a lot of work with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, from recipe development to conferences to a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska to learn all about their fishing practices. I was able to see first-hand how fish and other seafood makes it from the waters of Alaska to our dinner tables and it is nothing short of fascinating. Did you know that Alaska has sustainability written into their state constitution? Long before it became popular, Alaska was fishing this way. Seeing first-hand the way that the fisherman in Alaska have had this occupation lifestyle handed down from generation to generation is inspiring. I met Zach a few months ago when we both attended the Foodbuzz Festival in San Fran with Alaska Seafood. Zach started showing me some of his pictures and I was hooked from that moment on – I practically begged him to do a guest post for me!  He graciously accepted and here is our Q&A, but please feel free to ask Zach more questions in the comments section. And don’t miss his delicious Thai Peanut Salmon recipe at the bottom!

How are salmon caught commercially in Alaska?
By state regulation, there are 3 ways in which salmon may be caught and sold commercially in Alaska.
Trolling: Fish are caught on a hook and line with either bait or colorful lures.  Troll-caught fish are often considered the best quality. As they are individually handled and cared for, they often fetch a premium price.
Gillnet:  Salmon are entangled in a monofilament net where they swim in past their heads and then are caught by their gills in the mesh.  Gillnets are either left to drift in the currents of rivers and streams with an attendant boat nearby (called a drift gillnet), or they are anchored and attached to the shoreline (called a set gillnet).

Setnetting Alaska

The fish are periodically picked out of the net throughout the day.
Purse Seine:  Salmon are encircled with a net, while both ends are brought together and the bottom of the net is cinched closed, like a purse string.  The net is slowly hauled back onboard the boat until all that is left is a bag of fish. The process is repeated throughout the day.

Steadfast Alaska Fishing

How and where do you catch salmon?
I purse seine for all 5 species (Sockeye, King, Coho, Keta, and Pink salmon) in Kodiak, Alaska.

Hauling Gear Alaska

Our season typically starts on June 9th, and goes until around Labor Day.  In other areas of the state salmon season starts as early as May 10th and can go as late as the end of September, although oftentimes troll caught salmon can be available fresh nearly year round.  I grew up set gillnetting with my dad and family in Kodiak as well, and started purse seining during summers in high school.  Commercial fishing in Alaska is often a family affair.

What is life like on the boat?
Each area and fishery in the state is a little bit different, so I can really only tell you about what we do in Kodiak.  We fish anywhere from 2-7 days a week.  The department of fish and game is in charge of managing salmon fisheries around the state for future sustainability.  They have to manage fisheries such that each individual stream and river have enough fish return to spawn, to ensure future runs.  Based on spawning and escapement information they open and close different areas to fishing around the island at different times.  On a good year, we will get to fish every day.  In 2012 we fished every day from July 27th until we went home on September 1st; and prior to that we had only had 3 days off in July.
There are 4 people on the boat: myself, 2 deckhands and a skiffman.  The skiffman pilots a small 16 foot long skiff that is attached to one end of the net while the fish are being encircled, and then tows the main boat while the net is being hauled back on board, keeping it away from other boats and off the beach.  The whole process takes about 45 minutes to an hour, and is repeated anywhere from 6-15 times each day.

Setting the net Alaska fishing

Photo: Maleia Grabinski

The fish are stored on board our boat for up to 48 hours, in a fish hold that has refrigerated seawater circulating in it at 33 degrees F.  Every 2 days, or when we are full, we offload to either a shore based processing plant, or a tender vessel that the processor contracts to transport our fish from the fishing grounds to the processing plant, enabling us to continue fishing.

Alitak Alaska fishing

Photo: Maleia Grabinski

Most down time is spent traveling to new fishing grounds, completing repairs to the net or the boat, or if we are lucky, going for a walk on the beach or a hike.  While the net is in the water, the deckhands may have 20 minutes to prepare a meal or do some dishes.  Cooking, and eating often has to be done in spurts and on the go.

Mason in Alaska

Photo: Maleia Grabinski

We work long days and spend a lot of time away from home, away from friends and family.  But, there are plenty of rewards; the challenge and reward of catching fish, exploring unique and remote places, beautiful scenery and wildlife.

Uganik Bay Alaska

Photo: Maleia Grabinski

 Killuda Alaska Sitka, Alaska

Brad in Alaska

Photo: Maleia Grabinski

What do you do for cooking on the boat?
We have a diesel stove on the boat that heats the cabin, and also has a cast iron surface for cooking, as well as an oven, although regulating the temperature is often difficult.  Galley on Boat, Alaska

We also have an electric skillet, small gas grill and a crock pot.  My boat is 46’ long, so interior space is at a premium.  For cold storage we have a small refrigerator, cooler and a 7 cubic foot chest freezer, which we use to store food when we leave town at the beginning of the season, and to freeze salmon to bring home with us at the end of the season.  We freeze a lot of vegetables, and meat when we leave town, and also plan on eating quite a bit of fish, and maybe some venison later in the season if we are lucky.  We probably eat salmon 4-5 times a week.  When I was cooking on the boat I liked to keep preparation simple, but also offer a little variety.  Baking, grilling and steaming in the skillet were common ways to prepare the fish. Simple prep ideas can range from butter and brown sugar, to salt and pepper, to a Montreal meat rub, to a teriyaki sauce.  My cook this past summer often made curries and chowders with fish.
On occasional downtime we are able to sport fish a little bit and catch halibut, rockfish and cod.  There are also personal use fisheries around Kodiak in the summer for Tanner Crab and King Crab.  I do not have personal use crab pots, but we were able to get some to eat last summer from another boat.

What do you typically eat in the winter?
At the end of the summer I usually fill my chest freezer with a mix of sockeye and coho salmon fillets.  We are allowed to keep as much of our catch as we want, as long as it is reported to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  My processor will fillet, vacuum pack and flash freeze my homepack for me for about $1.25/lb (incoming weight).

home packed filets Alaska

It’s pretty cheap freezer filler and allows me to eat pretty darn well all winter.  With our refrigerated seawater system, and today’s flash freezing techniques, salmon in the winter time doesn’t taste much different from what we eat straight out of the water.
I have friends and family that are involved in other fisheries around the state.  I sometimes trade some of my salmon for things like halibut, scallops and black cod; it’s a nice way to get some variety in the winter.
Like many Alaskans, I hunt wild game in the fall.  This year a week after our fishing season ended I went hunting in the interior of the state with 2 friends and was able to harvest a caribou, which also provides some variety through the winter, and is delicious.

Caribou from Alaska

What are some of your favorite ways to prepare salmon?
I think simple is best, to let the flavor of the salmon, rather than the sauce, do the talking.  The key is to not overcook it.  Overdoing salmon makes it dry and cooks the flavor right out of it.  Sometimes I like to wrap the whole fillet in foil to help keep the moisture in.  I typically bake or grill my salmon.   While a little different, my favorite is to drizzle on a homemade Thai peanut sauce, wrap it up in foil and grill or bake it at 375.

More recipes coming! I’ll be posting six weeks of Alaska Seafood recipes, so don’t miss it!