The Thirsty Salmon: How a Big Catch on the Kenai Helped Build a Christmas Tradition

0
A woman shows off her salmon mounted on a wall

The woman who brought pizza dip to this holiday party asks me what I think of it and I blurt out “I love you!” as a response.

And so ends my self-pledge to go easy on the potluck spread. It wasn’t enough for me to have this pizza dip with bagel crisps or those weird scoopy tortilla chips. For science, I had to know how this dip would fare on a pulled pork slider. It fared very well. Now, I’m sitting back down at the bar counter with yet another scoop. I am trying it with chicken wings, for science.

She explains how ricotta and mozzarella cheeses were whipped together with sour cream, garlic soup mix, and pepperoni. She topped it with a nice layer of pepperoni and cheese, then baked it for about a half-hour. She did this while doing her hair, hanging Christmas decorations, and washing her dishes. Ask my wife how well I can do any one of those things by themselves.

A pizza dip in a glass serving dish on a holiday table
If you look closely at this pizza dip, you see my face after I had it.

“Aren’t you a food connoisseur?” she asks me. 

I cut half the scoop away with a see-thru plastic spoon, smear it all over a wing, and eat that. I use the base of my palm to wipe my lips, lick my palm clean, and say, “‘Connoisseur’ might be pushing it.”

My scientific endeavors yield yet another exceptional taste.

We’re at the Thirsty Salmon, Tammy and Brad Hejda’s basement bar located someplace on the Iron Range. About 20 people have gathered this year for the 14th annual Thirsty Salmon holiday party. The cheer is concentrated around a hefty L-shaped wooden bar. Six people are seated; another seven or eight stand, and a few more occupy couches nearby. There’s a suitcase-sized box of Michelob Light in the fridge if you want to pace yourself; but if you don’t, there are Everclear-soaked cherries in little dishes on the counter and I just popped open my 2014 Boom Island Yule (13.5 percent ABV).

Brad Hejda is behind the bar, wearing a Ford Mustang-branded fedora and a 2 Gingers T-shirt. He’s mixing cocktails next to a downtown of liquor bottles and a miniature toilet loaded with ice. Tammy Hejda sits at the corner of the bar, chatting with friends. There’s a deck of cards in front of her, but nobody’s using it. Behind her is a poster commemorating the Minnesota Twins’ 1991 World Series championship.

On the wall opposite that is a gigantic fish mount. There isn’t much else on that wall, because this fish doesn’t leave space to put much else on that wall. It’s a replica of the 67-pound salmon Tammy caught 14 years ago on the Kenai River, and that fish is how the Thirsty Salmon story begins.

ALASKA, 2004

Photo courtesy Tammy and Brad Hejda

Tammy says the tip of her fishing rod slammed down on the guardrail of the boat around 9:30 a.m. that July morning, and that’s when the battle began. It was her first time fishing king salmon.

“When the tip of your rod slams down on the guardrail, the tour guide guns the motor,” Tammy explained. “It’s up to you to get your rod out of that rod holder, pick it up, and catch your fish.”

The tour guide gunned the motor and Tammy pulled her fishing rod out of its holder. One of her friends hurried his line in and raised a fishing net high over his head, signaling to the other boats nearby that a fish had been hooked. The other boats saw that and scattered. It was just Tammy, her fishing line, and a giant fish now.

“‘She’s coming this way!’” Tammy recalls the tour guide yelling, ‘“Reel, reel, reel!’”

A fish can drag this fight out for an hour or more if they try swimming away, but this fish swam straight toward the boat. Tammy cranked her line and got the fish up next to the boat. She recalls watching it thrash around in the water and thinking, ‘What is that?!’

It was a 53-inch-long, 67-pound king salmon. The tour guide got his net around the fish and hauled it into the boat. In photographs, it looks almost taller than Tammy. The whole ordeal was done after 10 minutes.

You can only catch one king salmon per day on the Kenai, so Tammy’s fishing line wouldn’t see the water again. Her work was done before the cartoons even come off the air.

“I just sat back and enjoyed the rest of the day,” she says.

A NAME EXPLODES

The fish on the wall in the Hejdas’ basement isn’t the fish. Since salmon skin is oily and doesn’t maintain its color well when mounted, the Hejdas instead had a replica made. Tammy remembers the delivery truck pulling up with it. She says it looked like a coffin was being dropped off.

At this point, the bar was already in the basement. It was a gift from Tammy to Brad for his 45th birthday.

“I was thinking about something really unique for Brad’s birthday,” she says, “and [a co-worker] asked ‘Have you ever thought about making a bar?’”

This co-worker had been dabbling in log furniture, so Tammy didn’t have to look very far for a builder. Rather than just build a nice little counter and call it a day, this guy went the extra mile making the Hejdas’ bar. Several extra miles, to be exact: he visited bars around town to check out their setups, and used his observations to help model this one.

“The day he delivered it, [Brad] was working,” says Tammy. “I called his boss and I told him about it, so he kept Brad at work while the guys came here on a Saturday. I stocked the refrigerator with beer, took a picture of the bar and I put the picture in a card.”

Brad saw the card when he got home and beelined downstairs. His co-workers all piled in afterward, and the rest of the day was spent ridding the fridge of all that beer.

Eleven months later, the salmon arrived and was mounted on that wall with very little else on it. The “Thirsty Salmon” name, fittingly, was first put into the universe during a Christmas party.

“We were talking about the fish,” Tammy says. “For some reason, we started talking about names. The Thirsty Salmon just came out, and it exploded from there.”

THE TRADITION CONTINUES

A neon beer sign hangs along a brick wall in a Minnesota basement bar

The Thirsty Salmon branding was drawn up by a family friend and carved into a giant wooden disc that hangs behind the bar counter. It’s also been printed onto the top of a heavy stone table that sits next to a couch. For the tenth anniversary, T-shirts were printed to commemorate it.

The Thirsty Salmon? What’s that?” I get it a lot when I wear mine out. I have a story and a couple photographs at the ready.

The neighbors all know about the Thirsty Salmon holiday party, but the Hejdas have had guests drive in from as far off as South Dakota in the years since. I make the four-hour drive to the Iron Range with no other plans for the weekend (no other plans, that is, except for steak and eggs at Sportsmen’s Taverna). At this party, a young couple are in attendance who had recently relocated to the Twin Cities from Florida.

“What started out as just Brad’s co-workers and a few neighbors has, in past years, grown to as many as 30 people,” says Tammy. “Santa even came by one year. He read a Christmas story to the crowd.”

No Santa this year, but the bar is still near capacity when it clears out just after 2 a.m.

The next morning, while the out-of-towners who slept over all gather in the Hejdas’ living room, Tammy shows me a book of photos from the Kenai River that day. I’m surprised to see a landscape that’s nothing like the wintry tundra I’d imagined. Instead, I see a landscape similar to a summer St. Croix River scene.

Then she promises to find a book she had bought about the history of the Salty Dawg Saloon. The saloon’s building was first built in 1897. It’s been a post office, a grocery store, and a railroad station in past lives. It’s not far from the Kenai.

Flights to Alaska are pretty cheap in July, turns out. I decide I might head up there someday soon, with aspirations to catch my own Thirsty Salmon but instead loiter in that saloon for a few days. Some of us fish. Some of us are the fish.


Minor clean-up edits were made shortly after this article’s publication.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here