Here’s how a planeload of salmon gets from Cook Inlet to customers in Anchorage

Handlers at Spernak Airways unload a planeful of salmon Friday at Merrill Field in downtown Anchorage. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

It was a tough start to Alaska’s fishing season this year. The famed Copper River red run was a bust, and the state harshly restricted king salmon fishing in the Mat-Su and in Southeast Alaska.

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But now, the sockeye runs in Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet have heated up, which makes for an action-packed month for fishermen across the state.

Alex Pfoff is among them. He works 50 miles southwest of Anchorage, across the waters of Cook Inlet and off the road system, running a family business called the Salmon Hookup.

Further southwest, in the salmon hub of Bristol Bay, much of the fish gets delivered to processing plants. But Pfoff’s business is different: He sells straight to customers and restaurants in Anchorage.

“We have no problem doing the smallest of orders,” Pfoff said in a phone interview from the beach at his fishing site. “Our smallest unit of sale is a fish.”

Like many others’, Pfoff’s season started late, thanks to state-ordered closures to preserve king salmon stocks. The sockeye began arriving in force earlier this month.

Pfoff’s fish fly by bush plane to Merrill Field, the airport smack-dab in the middle of Anchorage. Pfoff’s mom, Kathy, was there Friday to meet one load of sockeye and silvers. (She also sends goods back out to her son’s remote site, which last week included a connector cable for a Nintendo Wii.)

When the plane landed, two handlers pulled out more than a dozen boxes, then carted them to a scale: 745 pounds.

Most of the fish was destined for individual customers, who arrived with coolers in the back of their trucks and SUVs.

One woman decided to buy her two silvers 12 hours earlier. Kathleen Katkus said she found the Salmon Hookup’s ad on Craigslist.

“It was really late, actually, and I had really bad pregnancy cravings,” Katkus said. “I think it was like one in the morning?”

A pair of salmon sit on ice after being shipped to Merrill Field on Friday. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz/ Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Others said they use Pfoff’s business to fill their freezers, as a way of escaping the hordes of dipnetters on the Kenai Peninsula.

Paul Bauman bought 15 fish, arriving with a check for $510. He’s a general contractor, and he said he carves out a full afternoon for salmon processing.

“It’s not like other states where you can go out fishing in a reservoir or lake and get a fish or two, or three or four,” Bauman said. “Here, when the salmon are in, you’ve got to deal with the salmon. Just like when the caribou are here, you’ve got to deal with the caribou.”

The rest of the fish went to restaurants. From the airport, Kathy drove downtown in her Ford Explorer, then along a dingy back alley.

Jose Martignon, one of the owners of Pangea restaurant, came out to meet her.

“Look at the fat content in these pieces, right here,” Martignon said, pointing to a salmon belly. “That’s all your flavor, right there.”

Spernak Airways flew salmon for Pfoff’s business, and it works with others, too. The flight service can carry 5,000 pounds to Anchorage in a single summer day, owner Mike Spernak said.

But that’s a tiny fraction of Alaska’s overall catch: On Sunday, Bristol Bay fishermen brought in 1.3 million salmon, according to figures collected by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.