CINCINNATI – When Cyclones defenseman Dax Lauwers came to Cincinnati in September, he brought more than just a pair of fast skates: He brought your dinner, too. Wild-caught Alaska sockeye salmon, to be precise.
On Thursdays, Lauwers can be found at the Madeira Farmers Market working his other job: selling salmon from Bristol Bay, Alaska, where he said he has been fishing since he was 6 years old.
The product he sells through Alaska Direct, the company he founded with his childhood best friend, is not local, of course, but it fits into the farmers-market ethos in being sustainably caught and raised without the chemicals used, for example, to inoculate and dye farmed fish.
The fish he sells is known for a mild, non-oily flavor and flesh more red in color than Atlantic and farmed salmon.
Each summer, Lauwers, 25, said he and his partner, Ryan Hanley, fish during Bristol Bay’s approximately 30-day season.
“I work up there June 15 to July 15 — that’s traditionally the season,” he said. “Sometimes you can go out earlier than that, sometimes you stay later than that. It all depends on the run of the fish, and the fish show up when they want to — sometimes early, sometimes late, sometimes right on time. We go out there June 15 and wait for the fish to come.”
Lauwers said that, while he used to fish from boats, he now works from shore with a large net — “set netting” as he called it. He said the number of fish he and others can take is regulated by Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff who work from towers and count the number of fish entering the rivers that feed Bristol Bay. Most of the fish he nets are headed toward the Naknek River to spawn.
Once the fish are caught, Lauwers said he and his partner deliver them to a crab boat (that isn’t crabbing at the time). That boat then takes the fish to a processor that filets, vacuum seals and freezes the catch.
From Bristol Bay, the fish travels by barge to Seattle, then is trucked to the Denver area, where Lauwers and Hanley own a 10,000-pound-capacity freezer. About once a week, a portion of the fish is trucked to Cincinnati, where Lauwers sells it from picnic coolers.
What Lauwers sells is “a mix of what we caught and what fishermen right around us caught. So if it wasn’t a fish that we pulled out of our net, it was a fish that was caught within a few hundred yards of us. That’s why we're really able to have confidence in the quality of our product because we know exactly where it comes from.
“We sell about half of our fish in the form of frozen filets or frozen portions, and both of those are raw,” Lauwers said. “And then the other half of our fish we get smoked from our friend in Vail (Colorado).… We have an inventory compiled of frozen full filets, frozen portions and about three or four different flavors of smoked salmon.”
Lauwers said the uncertainty built into the life of a professional hockey player is why he and Hanley chose Colorado as the base for their company. Since starting his post-college career in hockey, he has changed teams twice, starting with the Colorado Eagles, then moving to the Missouri Mavericks and in September coming to the Cyclones.
“My living situation is not very secure just because of the nature of professional hockey," he explained. "You never know when you’re going to get traded or released. It’s really week-to-week, and so we wanted to set up our home base in some place that was more secure, and so my business partner and best friend growing up — his mom and my mom were actually college roommates — he lives in Golden, Colorado. He manages a CrossFit gym there. That’s where we have our big freezer, and that’s where we get our fish smoked.”
A third-generation Alaskan and fisherman, Lauwers grew up in Anchorage.
“Living in Alaska, I started skating at a young age with my dad. There was this elementary school … that we would go to and we could skate outside. In Alaska, it’s the type of place where it's cold enough in the winter that every elementary school, middle school, high school has outdoor rinks,” he said.
“I would compare it probably to how in Kentucky, Ohio I feel like everyone plays basketball.… (Hockey is) definitely a sport of the people up in Alaska.”
At 13, he began working during the summers on commercial fishing boats on Bristol Bay, which is about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. He also fished recreationally, using a rod, with friends on the Kenai and Russian rivers. He spent his final year of high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was recruited to play hockey.
After high school, Lauwers spent a year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He left, he said, because “I wanted to play professional hockey, and you don’t give yourself the best options to play professional hockey by going to West Point. So … I had a personal realization that, ‘Hey, if I have a chance to play pro hockey, I want to be able to pursue it,’ and that’s why I left and ended up at Northeastern.” He graduated from there last year with a degree in business.
He said sustainable fishing is part of Alaska Direct’s mission.
“(Sustainability is) something at the forefront of our mind,” Lauwers said. “We are really privileged to have the opportunity to harvest this natural resource, and we want it to be around — just like my grandfather wanted it to be around for his son, my dad, and my dad wants it to be around for me.… I want my grandkids to be able to experience Bristol Bay, and the only way you can do that is to treat the environment with respect, treat Bristol Bay with respect, treat salmon with respect and not abuse the resource.”
Here’s how Lauwers likes to prepare his salmon:
“Once (I) thaw it out, I just put it the oven on 350 degrees. I put the salmon filets in a glass baking dish” that has been lightly oiled to keep the skin from sticking.
“I put (thinly sliced) onion on top of the salmon — a little bit of butter on each filet and a little bit of lemon (slices) on top of the filet … and a little bit of salt and pepper, and then bake it for about 8-10 minutes, and then I start checking it periodically just to make sure that it’s flaking off just perfectly.
“Once you get a defined flake — when you pull on the fish with a fork, it will flake off just like a moist perfect flake, that’s when — I usually pull it out when it’s a little bit rare on the inside, to have it with a little bit of brown rice and a little soy sauce.
“That’s how I like to enjoy it.”
- Find more salmon recipes at the website of Bristol Bay Sockeye, a Bristol Bay-based seafood development association.