March is the time to plan a pilgrimage in honor of Northwest royalty. Spring-run chinook salmon—known as spring kings, or springers—are pushing up the lower Columbia River right now, headed for spawning grounds and hatcheries upstream. Like other salmon species, they won’t spawn until the fall—nor will they feed—which means these early-returning fish must have ample fat reserves to survive until it’s time to reproduce. Fat equals flavor, and many chefs consider our Northwest spring chinook to be the tastiest of all salmon.
Local Native American tribes have revered spring kings for thousands of years. Variations on the First Salmon Ceremony are held across the region annually, with ritual singing, dancing and feasting to celebrate this gift from the ocean. Last year in mid-April, I attended one of these ceremonies at the Celilo (Wyam) Longhouse (open to the public) near The Dalles in the Columbia River Gorge (about a four-hour drive from Seattle), then chowed down with tribal members at what was by far the biggest salmon barbecue I’d ever seen. Stacks of fish, some the size of golf bags, were filleted and placed side by side on enormous outdoor grills, and the line of hungry guests snaked around the longhouse for 50 yards or more. A few weeks later, I returned with a friend to catch my own.
Our guide picked us up in his jet boat just before dawn. (Unless you have your own boat and are familiar with this fishery, you’ll want a guide.) It was the first week in May, and fish counts at Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland, suggested a big pulse of spring chinook had just passed Cascade Locks on its way upriver. We pulled plugs—orange-and-green lures called Mag Lips that dive and wiggle erratically underwater, eliciting territorial strikes from the nonfeeding salmon—until first light and then joined the many boats circling the outlet of Drano Lake, where migrating fish funnel into a narrow channel.
Drano isn’t technically a lake. Located at the mouth of the Little White Salmon River and created by fill left over from the construction of Bonneville Dam, this arm of the Columbia is protected from the river’s main current and acts like a giant back eddy. Fish drink in the cold, highly oxygenated water of the tributary stream and take a breather. It’s a popular salmon and steelhead fishing spot—so popular that you might find yourself squeezed into a traffic jam of boats. Nevertheless, it’s a good place to waylay a slab-sided chinook.
The fishing wasn’t lights out on this particular day, but my friend and I each went home with a fish of about 12 pounds. The next morning there was a text waiting on my phone: “Best salmon ever,” reported my fishing partner. The flesh of a spring king is deep red with an orange hue. It’s loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, and whether grilled, broiled or pan-fried, the meat is rich and succulent. There’s no need to get fancy—just brush on a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss the fillets on the grill. Then give thanks for a royal feast.
Click here for Langdon Cook's salmon head curry recipe.