Cooking My Catch — Afloat In Alaska

"Why didn't anyone tell me this is what fishing is like?" I demanded of nobody in particular. Our boat drifted around under Alaska's late summer sky, new friends and I swapped stories about everything and nothing, we grabbed up binoculars whenever one of us spotted a whale making its ponderously elegant way through the water, we snacked on crackers and smoked salmon, we drank some good and then some cheap beer, and, oh yeah, we caught some fish.

But not at first. First we cruised out on our 1976 34-foot Viking about half an hour from where our ship, Princess Cruises' Star Princess, docked smack in the heart of town at Ketchican. The name pleased me with its play on "catch if you can." My husband Brian, myself, and some friends on board had signed on for the new Cook My Catch program Princess rolled out earlier in the year. Not because I was an avid fisherwoman, but the opposite. Fishing was something my dad and grandpa and, you know, "older guys" did. They sometimes brought home a catch from the lake, but more often than not they came back empty-handed.

What was the point?

Part of travel is delighting in the unusual, the things you don't do at home. So here we were, Alaskan fishing license duly applied for once on board, poles in the water, and the specter of going vegetarian the next night at dinner if we didn't reel something in.

Just kidding — nobody goes hungry on a cruise ship. But still, the pressure was on to catch something. We all wanted that proud moment in the dining room when we could show off the big one. But somehow, even as hours passed without a nibble, nobody seemed to mind. After so many adrenaline-surging activities on this Alaskan trip — just your usual bear-watching, glacier-landing, Denali-summit-flightseeing kind of thing — the peace of the water was soothing. I could almost be lulled to sleep by the waves sloshing and the pale sun of the fading summer. But no! We had fish to catch. And just as we started to wonder if we'd be making the walk of shame back on land, the pole nearest to me dipped crazily into the water.

As if I had the slightest idea what I was doing, I grabbed it, and with a maniacal grin splitting my face, I began to reel in my catch. Then our captain, a grizzled young guy also named Brian, hurtled into action as a second pole bent, even more dramatically. I brought my shining, silver salmon in — dancing all herky-jerky at the end of the line — only to hear rapid-fire instructions from the captain.

"Throw it back, it's too small," he plainly stated.

This didn't compute. The fish was a foot-and-a-half long. On the lake where I grew up, the guys would brag about a fish that size to anyone who would listen. But this was a king salmon, and these guys get huge. I had to return him for someone else to catch when he grew up.

A few moments later, I saw why my guy was too small. Tom, a fellow fisherman for the day, had snagged a sea monster: another king salmon, at least two-and-a-half-feet long. The captain expertly netted the fish and killed him quickly. It suffered less than mine did as I fumbled to remove the hook. A quick slide of the knife and the beating heart lay in his hand.

"Was this your first salmon catch?" he asked our new pal Tom. It was. "Then you eat the heart."

This was no silly Travel Channel dare; the captain meant business. To his evident surprise, Tom obliged, holding out his hand without a word to accept his prize before popping it in his mouth. Shrieks ensued and I gave thanks that I'd caught a little fish. Adventurous as I like to think I am, we all have to draw the line somewhere, and I believe I've found mine.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a pleasant haze. A couple more fish, a whale breach, some bald eagles spinning overhead. We made our contented way back to town, filling out our dinner order form along the way. We could choose a cooking style or check the "chef's choice" box. Easy call, that. Chef's choice it is.

We waited impatiently for the following night's dinner even as we regaled anyone who would listen about our day gone fishing. When at last it arrived, sure enough it was a splendid affair, our fish making a grand entrance on a platter. (He became "ours" somewhere along the way — we were there for the Ceremony of the Heart after all). Catching nearby diners' looks of envy, we snapped a ton of pictures, marveling at how massive it appeared in the dining room, then sat down to our very own catch.