Mystery of the Ivory King

The seed for this story took over four decades to bear fruit. As a wise person once professed, “All good things take time.”

Knowing how much I liked to fish, Dad booked a charter boat trip for us out of the port of Ilwaco, Washington. It was late summer 1965 and I was 14 years old. Getting to the lower Columbia River estuary involved a 6-hour drive from our home in northeastern Oregon, but road miles flew by like leaves blowing before a hurricane wind. I was going salmon fishing! We ate greasy fish and chips in a dockside restaurant, spent a restless night in a cheap hotel and arrived at the dock before dawn. Eager anglers milled about our 12-pack party boat. There was the raucous squawk of circling gulls. Cool salt air mixed with the scent of diesel fumes and rotting fish.

I had no idea what to expect. My fishing experience had largely been limited to small trout streams. I had fished out of a boat once and that was an unsuccessful trip for steelhead. After exiting a crowded harbor accompanied by a flotilla of recreational anglers, we mooched whole herring off the side of the boat while giant swells turned my stomach into knots. I spent most of the morning reclining in a lower berth and puking into a plastic bucket.

“Big king! Big King!” the skipper yelled when I returned to my position on the top deck and hooked up with a salmon. There’s the scream of my level wind, the image of a huge fish showing at the surface and the dull thud of a wooden club on its head after it was netted. I staggered off the boat holding a 35½ pound Chinook salmon. Dry land never felt so good.

The salmon was too large for us to deal with so we turned it over the town butcher who cut it up into steaks that he wrapped in slick Kraft paper for storing in a rented freezer. Imagine my surprise when I thawed out a large package two weeks later to find white-meated fish! The only possible explanation was the butcher had swapped out my precious salmon with a halibut. When confronted with the likelihood, he denied responsibility.

I put the incident out of my mind until this past summer, when Nancy and I fished out of Telegraph Cove, British Columbia with BT and his wife Robin. It was the last day of an idyllic trip to the northeastern corner of Vancouver Island and we jigged for rockfish near a place BT called “the wall.” Until then, the fishing part of our trip had not been stellar. Nancy hooked and landed two small halibut our first day on the water when conditions were calm. BT and I had battled strong tidal currents and relentless wind over several other trips to catch but one small salmon each.

With one day remaining before Nancy and I made the 600-mile drive home, I craved action. No more trolling. No more watching my rod tip and the fish-finder to fill in empty moments. I wanted to catch a passel of fish and I wasn’t particular about size and species. Hoping to return home with a cooler full of tasty rockfish and ling cod, I brought along my favorite surfperch outfit, an 8-foot “Whuppin’ Stick,” and spinning reel loaded with 25 lb test monofilament. Unfortunately, I had neglected to reload the reel after leaving several yards of line dangling on a sharp rock during a previous trip to the Oregon coast. This shortcoming became evident once I dropped a 3-oz Crippled Herring down to 100-foot depth and detected empty space on my spool. The good news was 2-pound rockfish do not take out drag.

After hooking and releasing a dozen or so small black rockfish, I handed the rod off to Nancy. “There’s not much line on the reel,” was my only words of advice.

Five minutes later she was fast into a large fish. “It feels like a big one,” she remarked, as her rod doubled over.

“Be careful. You don’t have much line left on the reel,” I replied.

“I think its a halibut by the way it’s bouncing around,” BT chimed in. “”Do you want to gaff it?

“I’m more worried about how much line is on the reel,” I replied, standing by nervously.

“ Dennis, Dennis! It’s too big. I can’t reel,” Nancy said. “Here, you take the rod.”

I was more than happy to help, however, the taking of a rod does not come without liability as I quickly found out. “You better not lose it,” Nancy declared when she sat down, as if the threat would improve my angling prowess.

“Nice head shakes,” BT said. “That’s a big ling.”

Meanwhile, the mystery fish dove straight to the bottom, taking me down to six wraps of line on the spool. Do the math. Six wraps on a 3-inch diameter spool leaves you with little more than 4 feet of line. Still, I dared not tighten the drag after a quick test of line as tight as a guitar string.

I cranked with purpose to retrieve a few yards. But sensing pressure, the fish dove down once again. This time to a nervous three wraps on the spool. (I could count each one.) “We need to chase this fish,” I said in a tone as much pleading as telling.

Nancy quickly chimed in. “Can we go over by him?”

“No way. We don’t chase bottom fish,” BT replied emphatically. Luckily Nancy’s fish paused long enough for me to pump and reel and retrieve several yards of line. Enough of the spool was covered with line that I began to feel comfortable. By now the suspense was building, along with more advice from the peanut gallery.

“Don’t bust the line.”

“Are you sure you have the drag set right?”

When I finally worked the fish close, BT hung over the gunnel with gaff in hand. “I see color,” he yelled.

But like most big fish hooked at depth it did not want to “come into the light.” The drag on my spinning reel screamed as the fish made yet another downward run. “It’s a frickin’ salmon!” BT yelled when I finally brought the fish close enough for a look. Dropping the gaff, he went for the net.

“No way,” Robin yelled when a fat, bright-chrome 34 pound Chinook was safely netted and brought on board.

Not until we returned to the dock did we find out Nancy’s salmon was a rare and highly valued “White Chinook,” also known as an “Ivory King.” So what exactly is “Ivory King?” How is it that a chrome-sided, ocean-fresh Chinook salmon with sea lice hanging off its vent can have white meat? Just as important, what does it taste like? Any pale-colored salmon I ever saw went straight to the smoker or was canned for dog food.

According to fisheries scientists, the difference in flesh color comes from a genetically-determined ability to metabolize or break down naturally-occurring pigments found in shrimp, krill and crabs. Ivory Kings don’t have the genetic ability to break down their crustacean diet and store carotenoids in their muscle cells. This characteristic is a dominant genetic trait; therefore the vast majority of Chinook salmon have orange or red flesh. The remainder–usually 5 to 30% of the population depending on the river–has ivory-color or marbled flesh.

The flesh of Ivory and Red Kings are identical in composition of lipids, moisture content, protein and omega-3 fatty acids, although some believe the white version is oilier and tastier. Indeed, many seafood chefs rave about their delectable flavor. In past years, Ivory Kings could be purchased for a bargain price but customers are now willing to pay more for this coveted fish.

Interestingly, Ivory kings are purported to fight differently than their red-meated counterparts. Some anglers say Ivory Kings tend to sound or swim straight down rather than taking off on long searing runs. Nancy’s “Tyee” reinforced that belief. It repeatedly dove to the bottom at 100-foot depth as measured by the amount of the line left on my reel. We never would have landed it otherwise. As for future trips, I laid down 200 yards of 25# monofilament the minute we returned home from Telegraph Cove.

Some insight come to you like a swift rap on the side of your noggin. Other revelation requires an unspecified gestation period. Still, 43 years is a long time for me to hold a grudge against a small town butcher.