Monday's Sun-Times story on Chicago River fish reminds me to pass on some miscellany from my recent but already far-in-the-misty-distance Wisconsin vacation.
Two days into two weeks on Washington Island I went out charter fishing with a crew of three other passengers, plus captain Mike Stults and his able teenage assistant, Zach. I hadn't been fishing since I was maybe 13, and it must be that growing up on the west coast left me spoiled by an ample supply of fresh sockeye--I was surprised to discover we were going trolling for salmon. I'd never even heard of lake salmon until that morning. Turns out the Department of Natural Resources started stocking the Great Lakes with salmon (both chinook, or king, and coho) in the 60s, to chow down on the exploding alewife population, and they're now the backbone of Lake Michigan's sport fishing industry--at least up in the northern waters.
The fish practically jumped into the boat; after four hours we'd hit the day's limit of five per person--and as my fellow fisherfolk were heading home the next day to milk the herd, I entrusted them with my share of the haul, which they dropped off at storied Bearcat's in Algoma. Ten days later a pile of smoked fillets was waiting with my name on it; I picked them up on the way home and have been noshing on smoked salmon (lemon-pepper flavor) ever since. Until, that is, the fourth or ninth person I forced some on asked idly, "Aren't these, like, loaded with mercury?" and I had to come up with an answer.
So, first the good news: according to the Wisconsin DNR, fish in the Great Lakes aren't nearly as vulnerable to mercury contamination as fish from inland waters--Lake Michigan and its brethren lack the necessary amounts of anoxic bacteria to convert mercury into an easily absorbable form. (For more than you ever wanted to know about Wisconsin fishing, go here.) Now the bad: salmon and other deep-water Lake Michigan fish contain much higher levels of PCBs than inland fish. (PCBs are stored in fat, rather than muscle, and can be controlled for somewhat by cooking. But, still.) The DNR recommends no more than one meal a month of lake-caught salmon.
So! I may have had my fill for the year. Luckily the stuff seems to freeze pretty well. Come the holidays, it's smoked salmon all around.