First things first: Copper River salmon is not a type or species of salmon. The label "Copper River Salmon" is used to denote chinook, sockeye, and coho salmon caught in Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta area on its way to swim up the Copper River to spawn in one of its streams and tributaries.
What's All the Fuss?
At 300 miles, the Copper River is a long one, which is part of why the salmon that come from it are so highly prized.
Since the fish have a long journey, they prepare for it by fattening up beforehand. Copper River salmon tend to have nice high fat levels for their species, giving them great flavor, wonderful texture, and the health benefits associated with the healthy fats in salmon.
That's not quite the whole story, though. The Copper River salmon fishermen have worked together to ensure that salmon coming from the area are well-handled at every step of the way, from being caught in gill nets and bled immediately when caught, to being processed and shipped in a careful and expedient way. The establishment of best practices and some very good marketing has led to a consistent demand for Copper River salmon at higher-than-average market prices. This, in turn, means Copper River fishermen are motivated to continue to improve their catch.
The efforts to market Copper River salmon first targeted the Pacific Northwest, particularly Seattle and Portland, since there was a built-in demand for salmon in the area.
On a personal note: Such a fuss was always made about the the first "Copper River salmon" at markets and restaurants when I went to college in Portland that at first I honestly thought the Copper River must be somewhere in Oregon!
On top of great taste, the fishing practices that bring Copper River salmon to market are sustainable.
Alaska Fish and Game assures the seasons for different species don't start until a solid population of that salmon has already headed up the river to spawn.
When Is Copper River Salmon Available?
The salmon fishing season in Cordova, Alaska, the small fishing town from which the Copper River salmon fishery is based, usually opens in mid-May and ends sometime in September. The season starts with chinook (a.k.a. king) salmon, then moves to sockeye salmon, and ends with coho salmon. Fresh Copper River salmon is shipped throughout the U.S. when it's in season. Frozen Copper River salmon is tasty the rest of the year—it's sure what the entire town seems to happily live on!
Is Copper River Salmon Really the Best Salmon?
The Copper River salmon I've had has always been extremely high quality salmon. The best salmon I've ever had, though, was a chinook salmon from the Yukon River fishery further north in Alaska. The Yukon River measures in at 1,980 miles, over six times as long as the Copper River. I'm not sure that salmon was six times better than any Copper River salmon I've ever had, but it was pretty darn close.
Yukon River salmon is much trickier to procure, though, and Copper River salmon is widely available when it's in season.
It may not be the absolute best salmon I've ever eaten, but I must admit that it's the best salmon I can regularly find for sale!
How Should I Cook Copper River Salmon?
You've probably paid a premium for the quality of Copper River salmon. Don't mask it. If it's fresh, it must be summer, so I recommend simply making Grilled Salmon and calling it a day. It's easy, it's delicious, and it keeps the fish smell out of the kitchen! Not in the mood to grill? See other Ways to Cook Salmon.
Where Can I Get Copper River Salmon?
Copper River salmon is often for sale at specialty markets and seafood counters. If you can't find it in your neck of the woods, the Copper River Fish Market ships throughout North America.