Imagine having a freezer packed to the brim with freshly caught salmon from Alaska. That might sound odd living in Colorado, but this fall, many mountain residents are finding they can have a taste of the ocean — without having to travel very far. And a couple from Fairplay is making it easier to get fresh quality fish in Colorado’s land-locked mountain communities.
On a brisk Sunday in October, Jaymi Bethea helped her husband Hayden Linscheid as he backed up their trailer into a tiny parking spot in the small business district of Crested Butte South. On this day, the trailer — also known as “the salmon wagon” — is filled with over 350 pounds of frozen salmon – just a fraction of the 6,000 pounds that the couple recently brought back from Alaska.
In 2020, Linscheid and Bethea founded their company, Savor the Wild, after working on commercial fishing boats around Alaska for years. Both Bethea and Linscheid grew up on Kodiak Island in Alaska before moving to Colorado. Linscheid grew up fishing with his family and Bethea worked on crabbing boats to pay off student loans. Together, they have decades of fishing experience.
Bethea said starting the business made sense after they heard raving reviews from friends and family about the salmon they brought back to Colorado each year.
“After sharing our fish every year, talking about our fish ... we figured, ‘I think we can make a business out of this,’” Bethea said.
So now, each summer, the couple returns to Alaska where they catch thousands of pounds of sockeye salmon in the world-famous Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay is home to the largest wild sockeye salmon run in the world. Salmon swim from the bay to the ocean where they take a few years to grow and mature. Once they are ready to spawn, they swim thousands of miles to spawn in the nine major rivers in Bristol Bay – which is when fishermen like Bethea and Linscheid intercept them.
This year, fishermen saw records shatter when 79 million fish returned to Bristol Bay. The record-breaking numbers have made the fishery incredibly successful – it has a $2 billion dollar economic impact while supporting 15,000 seasonal workers. Commercial fishermen make up 8,000 of those jobs.
While most fishermen sell the salmon they catch to the global market, Bethea and Linscheid are part of a small group – a few dozen – who bring their salmon home to sell it locally. They freeze it, and in the fall, they return to their home in Fairplay, load up the salmon wagon and sell their fresh-caught fish in neighboring mountain towns.
“We enjoy the communities. We’re a part of a mountain community,” Linscheid said. “We like the people, we like the vibe of the whole deal.”
Each weekend in the fall, the couple spends Friday through Sunday selling salmon to mountain dwellers. They rotate among Fairplay, Buena Vista, Silverthorne, Crested Butte, Salida and Fraser.
On this day in Crested Butte, they move quickly to set up a pop-up tent and a folding table. A colorful banner with photos detailing their exciting job as commercial fishermen serves as a backdrop. Their jobs are hard, they say, but you might not know it from the photos.
“I don’t know if you can tell from the photos,” Bethea said, laughing. “But we only think of taking photos when it’s beautiful, flat, calm and we’re blowing bubbles.”
By mid-October, Crested Butte’s leaves have fallen and snow is on the way. Starting at noon this day, a steady stream of cars line up in front of the tent. Bethea stands behind the table to greet customers while Linscheid boxes up orders in the trailer.
Krista Hildebrandt lives in Crested Butte and picked up the 15 pounds of salmon she pre-ordered online. She said it’s hard to get fresh fish living at the end of the road in Crested Butte, so she was excited to order salmon after hearing about Savor the Wild.
“So when I heard through word of mouth from a handful of friends that they were getting salmon from this lovely team I was like, ‘This is awesome!’” Hildebrandt said.
When Hildebrandt opened her box, she gasped in delight. For her, 15 pounds was more than enough to stock her freezer for the whole winter.
While some Crested Butte residents ordered online, many customers who drove up are new. And in small communities like Crested Butte – good news travels fast — like to Nicole Swaggerty.
“I’m a newbie too!” Swaggerty told the couple. “And similar to him, just a friend, word of mouth through the Facebook post.”
Swaggerty said she’s excited to nourish her body with fish and omega fatty acids with Crested Butte’s cold winter on the way. She’s also excited to find quality salmon for a reasonable price.
While customers were eager to buy, they were also curious to learn more about Bethea and Linscheid’s lives as commercial fishermen. The couple owns two boats and they both have their own crew.
“This summer I had five people on my boat and he had four on his,” Bethea explained. “And you can always use more hands.”
The work is exciting and hard, the couple explains. They often work through the night, pausing only for a few hour-long naps during the day. And the weather on Bristol Bay can be rough and unpredictable.
“You just have to wake up ready — not knowing what's going to be out there,” Linscheid said. “And so that's the excitement of Bristol Bay, it's kind of a gamble.”
Despite crewing their own boats, the two stay close to one another while fishing around the clock to catch as much as they can.
Back in Colorado, they also take the time to explain to each customer how the fish make their way from Alaska to the Centennial State. Once salmon leave their boat, they are hand-cut, de-boned and then frozen.
“From there it goes into a freezer shipping container and goes by boat from Naknek, Alaska, to Seattle,” Bethea said. “After that, it goes by truck from the Bellingham area to Denver where we store it at Mile High Cold Storage.”
Bethea said their frozen salmon is just as tasty as eating the filets they grill on the back deck of their boats. The couple says they have tested their theory while on the water.
“So we both grilled salmon fresh caught right on our back deck — never frozen,” Bethea said. “And we could not tell the difference between what we pull out of our freezer here in Colorado, and that fish fresh out of the net.”
Andy Wink, the executive director of Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said buying from fishermen like Bethea and Linscheid ensures quality.
“With buying it from a direct marketer like Hayden and Jaymi, you're probably getting an extra layer of quality inspection,” said Wink. “I think it's just that sort of personal connection of knowing where your food came from.”
At the end of the day in Crested Butte, Linscheid stood inside the couple’s trailer counting the remaining filets of salmon. They sold all but about 25 pounds they brought from Fairplay that day, and the couple is closer to their goal of selling 6,000 pounds by the end of the year – which will double their business from last year.
They’ll ski all winter, and then next summer – it’s back to Alaska.
“It's just so much fun, it really is,” Linscheid said. “It's hard work. But it's just kind of fun when the weather's not great, the fishing is okay, and you're with your crew, and you're just doing your best to make a living and do something different.”
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