PAT NEAL: The all new First Salmon Ceremony

IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news. A historic event we’ve all been waiting for finally came to pass.

It was a media circus almost like the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus all rolled into one to thrill the hearts of young and old alike.

That’s right, the very first Copper River Salmon of the year was flown from Alaska to Seattle for the enjoyment of trendy diners everywhere.

In all, about 18,000 pounds of these first salmon described as “buttery, red and rich — with intense flavor, texture and mouthfeel” were available for $59.99 a pound or flash-frozen and shipped overnight for $74.99 a pound with free shipping for orders of eight pounds or more.

All of which is somehow vaguely reminiscent of the oldest community celebration in the Pacific Northwest, the First Salmon Ceremony.

Practiced in one form or another by people who lived in the range of the salmon the First Salmon Ceremony was first witnessed by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition at The Dalles on the Columbia River on April 19, 1806.

Capt. Clark observed, “The whole village was rejoicing today over having caught a single salmon, which was considered as the harbinger of vast quantities in four or five days. In order to hasten their arrival, the Indians, according to custom, dressed the fish and cut it into small pieces, one of which was given to every child in the village.”

The First Salmon Ceremony is one of the oldest expressions of human faith, where the salmon are thanked for returning to the river.

To thank the salmon, the first salmon caught in the river each year was treated as a special guest.

The meat was shared.

It was believed that as long as the salmon were treated with respect, their bones washed and returned to the river, the fish would run forever.

All of which might go a long way to explain what happened to the salmon fishing in Washington.

When Lewis and Clark first observed an estimated 10,000 pounds of dried salmon stored in baskets stacked along the river, salmon was a food for the common people.

Salmon kept people alive throughout our history.

James Swan described the salmon fishing at Chinook in June of 1853 where a hundred chinook or king salmon weighing up to 78 pounds could be caught in a single haul of a beach seine net.

These fish called, “June hogs” for their size and fat content were doomed to extinction with the establishment of the first of many salmon canneries on the Columbia River in 1866.

Canned salmon represented an inexpensive protein that was considered the poor man’s tuna.

In 1938 the Grand Coulee Dam was built on the Columbia with no provisions for fish passage.

Predictably, the salmon fishing moved north to Alaska. Meanwhile here in Washington, the king salmon has achieved threatened and/or endangered species status despite the millions spent in restoring them.

The yearly arrival of the Copper River Salmon represents a transmogrification of the First Salmon Ceremony into a media event that celebrates the extinction of a species people have relied on for thousands of years.

The closer the salmon circle the drain of extinction the more valuable they will become. Our technology has doomed the salmon.

In 1969, America put a man on the moon. At the time we were catching spring chinook, the same fish as the Copper River salmon, in Morse Creek.

Fifty years later the question remains: We can put a man on the moon, but can we put a salmon back in the creek?


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via [email protected].

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