Have you heard of Fish Bacon? I doubt you have. I hadn’t either, until I invented the term.
I’m not a big “catch and keep” type of guy. It’s not that I’m entirely against the practice—certainly many fisheries would benefit if us fly-flickers kept a few fish—I just usually find the whole process to be a hassle. My entire focus usually adheres to time-honored tradition of hunting a big fish (frequently an invasive species), taking its picture, and releasing it as gently as possible. I really can’t fault my non-fly fishing friends, who point out the non-sensical nature of catch-and-release fly fishing. Plus, while I enjoy the occasional baked halibut or salmon fillet, I’m just not a connoisseur when it comes to the eating of fish. At every wedding I’ve attended, I’ve always chosen the steak or chicken over the fish.
But then I discovered Fish Bacon.
My friend Brian and I were struggling to come up with a trip plan for the late summer of 2020. With much of the world shut down to American travelers due to our curious handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, our options seemed limited. With our initial plans to hunt massive Canadian pike scuttled on account of the virus, we turned our thoughts to domestic options. We agreed on the fact that there is nowhere in the USA like Alaska, and eventually decided on a DIY wilderness float in the Arctic, hunting massive anadromous dolly varden.
We spent the next couple months wringing our hands over all the possible problems that could derail the trip. Would our flights get canceled? Would the Inupiat village we needed to travel through close its doors to outsiders? We really couldn’t blame them if they did… after all Indigenous Americans have fared very poorly during previous pandemics brought from overseas. Would one of our group of four contract Covid-19, rendering our plans moot? In fact, several weeks before the trip was scheduled to commence, I did indeed experience a diagnosis of Covid-19. Fortunately, my course was mild, and I received clearance from the Public Health Department to end quarantine just six days before our date of departure.
Even during normal times, the stars need to align for an Arctic trip to go flawlessly. During our last trip, part of our group spent two days in an unfinished yurt, waiting out the foggy conditions that made flight by bush plane unsafe. Then, the river blew out due to a generational storm, rendering it unfishable for half our trip. This year, while we were in the Arctic, a hunting group’s plans were interrupted when their bush plane crashed (everyone was unhurt, fortunately). Another group had their camp raided by a grizzly. But for us, the fish gods were kind, and we avoided all such disasters. What followed was the trip of a lifetime.
Back to Fish Bacon. As we approached the river, our bush pilot was raving about his favorite type of Alaskan fish to eat. Alaskans have a lot of options when it comes to choosing their favorite fish for eating. But rather than the flakey white flesh of halibut, the famous rich red meat of the sockeye, or the delectable taste of rockfish and cod, our pilot chose the SKIN of the dolly varden as his favorite Alaskan meal. Dolly varden don’t really exhibit scales like most of their salmonid brethren. They have smooth, nearly untextured skin, possessing a thin layer of fat underneath. When cooked over the fire, it becomes simultaneously crispy and juicy. After eating the delicious pink meat of a dolly, one is essentially left with a large slab of Fish Bacon, a true delicacy of the north.
While we were there for the large, colorful dollies headed upstream to spawn, the vast majority of the fish in the system are engaging in another fascinating part of their life-cycle. These fish provided our Fish Bacon, as we had no interest in harvesting the huge pre-spawners. Most of the anadromous dollies do not spawn every year, but they return from the ocean during the winter regardless. While spending a quick two months gorging on the bounty of the Arctic Ocean, they subsequently follow salmon upstream to pick off their eggs and flesh. These dime-bright char subsequently spend the rest of the winter in the river systems where they rest, essentially dormant. The salinity of the Arctic Ocean allows the water temperature to get well below the point of freezing during the winter, which is too cold for the survival of this species. Therefore, even the non-spawning dollies spend the winter in freshwater, biding their time until the next summer’s feeding frenzy back at sea. We caught hundreds of these psycho dime-bright fish at a phase of their life when they were only a week or two removed from their stay in the ocean. They fought like the saltwater fish they are, and the Fish Bacon they provided was delicious.
While it was nice to return with multiple unopened packages of Mountain House on the account of all the Fish Bacon that was ingested, we were really there to catch the colorful, large male fish that were headed upstream to spawn a few weeks later. Dolly varden are scientifically known as Salvelinus malma, but even the early scientists in Arctic realized there was something special about the anadromous version of the species found in the Arctic. So special in fact, that these scientists gave this version of dollies an EXTRA malma, as they are now known as Salvelinus malma malma.
These remarkable fish exceed three feet in length and 20 pounds in weight, exhibit the most stupendous colors of any freshwater fish… and they eat dry flies! The colorful pre-spawners comprise a fairly high percentage of the largest, and most mature fish. Our trip this year was multiple trips and numerous years in the making. These fish are fairly unsophisticated, and the secret of their pursuit is being in the right place at the right time. Our extensive research paid dividends this year in the form of dozens of spectacular, trophy dolly varden. I’ve experienced trips with floods, near-drownings, broken rental cars, and rivers devoid of fish. This trip was all Arctic sunshine and trophy fish. I’ll be back soon for more trophy dollies, and of course, Fish Bacon.