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Alaskan waters lure Colville family as timber jobs wane

Spokane got a chance to taste the difference in Ken DesRosiers’ lifestyle Friday night after his first catch of the season was air-expressed from Alaska. Portions from the two bright, saltwater-caught king salmon are being featured as a “verbal special” by waiters at Wild Sage American Bistro.

The 54-year-old Colville man, who lost his heavy-equipment job in the timber industry several years ago, has retooled for a career as a commercial fisherman.

He could sell his king salmon at the docks in Sitka for $8 a pound and relax.

But DesRosiers, his wife, Lisa, and three 20-some-year-old offspring are trolling the Internet and specialty markets for customers willing to pay extra for meticulously handled fish from a small operator.

“We’re trying to get rid of the middleman, the X factor,” he said. “The website and handling is a lot of work for us, but the only way we can guarantee delivery of the very freshest fish is to have control.”

Lisa maintains a job outside the family business in Colville. Daughter Bethany, based in Spokane, manages the air-express deliveries in her compact Mazda sedan.

The family company, Go Wild Alaska Salmon, is a fish-lover’s bargain, said Alexa Wilson, the executive chef at Wild Sage.

“Ken is selling premium fish at $12 a pound on the Internet, which is way too low,” she said. “But the family is passionate about what they are doing.”

DesRosiers stumbled onto his zeal for fishing in 2003 after he learned he would eventually lose his job as Boise Cascade sought to sell its northeastern Washington timberlands.

“I could have gone to a mill, but pulling green chain at 50 wasn’t a good option; that’s a young man’s job,” he said.

He went to Alaska with his father and became acquainted with relatives who’d been involved with commercial fishing.

“I came back totally excited,” he said with his arms fully engaged in reliving the moment. “I told my wife, ‘Boy, I’d love to do this as a business.’

“My wife said, ‘OK, sure.’

“She didn’t realize at first that I was a changed person after being on an Alaska fishing boat.”

By the time he was laid off, the family had purchased a 28-foot boat to fish for pleasure and begin learning the skills.

“Everything was going down with logging,” he said. “I was getting work as a diesel mechanic at $15 or so an hour, but I couldn’t get over the fishing thing.”

He sold his sports car and bought a bigger boat.

“My sons, Michael and Ken III, went up with me. We worked as mechanics part time and fished when we could to try and figure it out. That’s when we realized we could make money.”

But they spent it all and then some to graduate into yet a bigger boat, with a freezer, which they’re fishing for the first full season this year.

“It’s a steel 46-footer, big and wide with lots of room,” he said. “What a change. When you start commercial fishing, this is what you dream about. And we finally have it.”

Being a diesel mechanic is an excellent foundation for operating a fishing boat, he said, noting that he and his sons apply all of their heavy-equipment skills liberally before, during and after the fishing season.

Asked for a fishing report via cell phone on Monday, DesRosiers replied, “Cold. Bad seas. A whale breached four times near our boat, completely out of the water while we were fishing. A pod of orcas was nearby. That’s our office.”

However, the fishing was slow.

“On Sunday there were 60 boats around us and we were catching the average if not the most fish – a total of four. They averaged 22 pounds apiece.”

In the early season, Sitka’s commercial fishermen are restricted to coordinates just outside the main salmon migration route. Treaties and other agreements protect the bulk of fish moving south along the Pacific Coast.

“Sometimes we wonder how we’ll pay expenses,” DesRosiers said. “We try to catch enough fish in the early season to make the boat payment until the two main seasons open in July and August.

“That’s when we’ll try to put some money away.”

But they can’t afford bad luck or a breakdown during one of those 10- to 14-day seasons.

“There’s a lot of water up there to find the fish in,” said Ken III in February while he was in Spokane trying to develop markets before the men left for Sitka. “It can get your stomach churning.”

The family takes pride in being trollers who catch fish with 24 hooks in the water at a time rather than the suffocating practice of gillnetting.

“We’re up at 3 a.m., cut-plugging herring,” Ken III said. “The first time I saw one of our lines fully loaded, I swear they slowed the boat down. But the thrill fades quickly if you have to deal with sea lions.”

The DesRosierses cannot catch the volume of fish pulled in by big operators, so they concentrate on quality.

“We handle each fish individually up to eight times with our hands,” Capt. Ken said. “It’s a ton of work, but it pays off in the final product.

“We clean them immediately and use a pressurized bleeding system to flush all the blood out of their body. That’s very important.”

At Wild Sage, Wilson ordered fresh, never-frozen king salmon for her discriminating guests this weekend even though it’s more hassle and expense.

“Most people would never know the difference between fresh salmon and fish frozen the way Ken does it,” Wilson said.

“But the public perception of fresh fish has extra value. Customers are willing to pay more for it and our restaurant is known for seeking these types of products.”

Normally, DesRosiers’ salmon are water-glazed all around to prevent freezer burn and deep frozen to a core temperature of at least 20 below zero.

“These fish look like they’ve been mounted,” Capt. Ken said. “They’re sushi grade. Beautiful. When they’re prepared in Spokane or wherever, they’re like they just came out of the saltwater.”

He warns that buying “fresh fish” in stores can be tricky.

“If you’re out fishing and icing fish for five days, some of the fish you deliver on the fifth day are already five days old. They go onto a truck with ice and it might be another five days before the product gets to a customer in Seattle.

“The fish aren’t spoiled, but they’re not the same quality as the fish that are frozen the day they come out of saltwater.”

The family is banking on customers who make these distinctions.

“We take better care of these fish than we did when we were sport fishing a couple at a time,” he said.

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