White Kings: Myth, Magic or Marketing?

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Hangback Hoochie
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September 1, 2018
kenai river sockeye
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September 5, 2018

White Kings: Myth, Magic or Marketing?
White kings become more plentiful the farther north that you fish as long as those rivers are north of Latitude 48.7732—the 49th parallel North.
By Terry W. Sheely

The black net flashes, a chunky Chinook rolls in, deckhand hollers, “White king! It’s a white king!” I have no idea how he thinks he knows what color of meat is under the blue-silver scales. The fortunate fisherman uncorks a double fisted air pump and another page turns in the mystery myth, White Kings of the Northwest.

And my personal puzzle deepens. What is it about these Chinook, beyond their rarity, that so infatuates king salmon lovers? Do they really fight harder, run farther, taste better and gorge only on prey without iodine or carotene?

Possibly it’s the rarity of white kings that anoints them with such avariciousness. If it’s rare it’s gotta be exceptional, eh, and kings with white meat are certainly rare.

How rare?

In rivers that breed white kings only, one-in-20 Chinook will have white meat, according to multiple studies in British Columbia and Alaska, our wellsprings for Northwest whites. I asked fish experts in California, Oregon and Washington about white king spawning rivers in their states and each replied ‘nope, none.”

Doesn’t mean they aren’t caught. Some are landed every season in the ocean off Oregon and Washington and especially in northern Puget Sound/Salish Sea. A few wander into Lower 48 freshwater flows, but very few. And those that do are strays, agree ODFW’s Jessica Sall and WDFW’s Puget Sound Salmon Manager Steven Thiesfeld. Most likely they are Fraser River fish, the southern range limit of the resident White King.

fraser white king

Rare “Ivory Kings”, like this BC slab, are only spawned north of the 49th parallel, with 1-in-20 odds that it will have coveted white meat.

In contrast, kings with typical orange-red meat run the coastline from the ice fields of the Arctic to Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay. But not pale scales. White kings are northerners, spawning only in rivers from the Fraser north to the Chilkat at Haines, in Southeast Alaska. The big, brawling Fraser at 854-miles long in B.C. produces more white kings than just about anywhere. White kings filter into the massive system from June to November, and a few smallish Fraser tributaries are almost exclusively white king waters, according to BC fishery gurus. It’s genetic.

Kings are the only species of the five Pacific salmon that produce specimens with non-red meat. You won’t find a white-meated silver, chum, pink or sockeye, and only 5 percent of the total king salmon on the world-wide fish market are white, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Perhaps it’s the rarity that explains the zealot-like passion for white kings among otherwise reasonable saltwater anglers and cooks for boxing Chinook with meat that’s pale white rather than sunrise orange. Or perhaps I’m taste-bud challenged, too hungry to pause and search for savory subtleties or more likely, as has been suggested, too dense to detect succulent nuances. That could be true, since I sometimes also favor wines with threaded stoppers.

Regardless of color, a buttery-moist fillet of king salmon sizzling on my plate is just that — a slab of flaky Grade A Choice. I’ve caught my share of white kings along the ragged coast of British Columbia, in the folds of Southeast Alaska and even a couple of strays in Washington. If they fight harder or run farther than an orange-meat cousin, I can’t discern it. Fight and stamina seem more allied with physical size and distance from spawning than on what color, or lack of it, flexes under the scales.

A prejudice-free palate and non-partisan attitude seems, however, to be in the minority. To many, if not most, catching a white salmon is an event somewhere north of Happy Dance and slightly south of biblical manna.

In a restaurant, a white king on a plate will usually put a bigger ding in your debit card but it wasn’t always so. In fact, for years white kings were the ‘yuck’ catch for commercials. Buyers didn’t want ‘em, restaurants wouldn’t serve them and salmon-lovers questioned freshness. “Did the orange rot out,” some asked. Salmon, as everyone knew then, is supposed to be salmon-orange, not pollock-white.

White kings were so disparaged less than a decade ago that commercial fish buyers threw them into the pile of seconds with other also-rans and shipped them off to canneries or smokehouses where the white meat could be discolored, diluted, disguised and hidden.


White king fillets compared with typical orangish to red Chinook cuts. Despite what you probably heard, the only difference is in the color and has nothing to do with what they eat.

And then somewhere some industrial marketing genius floated out the “inside word” that white kings were actually rare “Ivory” kings. Superior in every way. And it worked. The new name Ivory King proved to have a better ring with the international fine-dining public than genetically-challenged-white king and many of the world’s snootiest chefs rushed to originate “Ivory” entrees—and pocket big bucks.

That new-found celebrity status trickled downstream into local pockets. With that new, succulently savory name and bump in market share came a cash bonus. Because ‘white kings’ had for years been second-class fish, the price per pound was about 60-cents a pound lower than for orange-meat salmon. The fish buyers who gave Ivory Kings a whirl, capitalized on a good sales job, with lower overhead and created a market for white—uh, Ivory Kings.

The executive chef for the Gold Room in Juneau’s prestigious Baranof Hotel, now complains that the price has gone up over the last three years. “I used to be able to get white king for less than regular king,” he said. “The cost has gone through the roof.” The owner of Rose Fisheries in Sitka has said that East Coast customers covet the white king, and they’re willing to pay more for it.

How that manufactured prestige wound up sating sport-fishing appetites, I can only guess, but that it has is undeniable.

From a nutritional standpoint, research has shown white kings and orange-fleshed kings are identical in composition of lipids, moisture, protein and omega -3 fatty acids, the “good” fats that ward off heart disease.

How do they taste?

A Tlingit chef in Southeast told ADFG he prefers white king because, “It is much oilier and tastier.”

On the opposite side of that point and the country, a world-famous New York restaurateur says he loves the flavor of white kings because they are “less oily.”

Go figure.

More or less oily, white or orange, ivory or white, fighter or wimp, scientists are wisely reluctant to take stands in such subjective waters. If you are convinced a white king fights harder and an ivory Chinook tastes better, then it does.

Around most Northwest fish cleaning tables, the common explanation for why one king is white and another orange goes straight to diet. Most kings eat shrimp, so the wives-tale goes. Shrimp are pink and high in iodine which is reddish on the drug store shelf. Vis-à-vis salmon that eat shrimp have pinkish-red-orange meat and salmon that don’t eat shrimp have white meat.

white king

Any river where two white kings get together can miss a gene and produce a white king like this. The odds are just better in big northern rivers.

Good story, but not true. Not even close.

White and orange salmon swim side-by-side in the ocean, chasing the same baitfish, easting the same foods, coming back to spawn in the same schools.

Diet, according to every ichthyologists at the Fisheries and Oceans in Canada and the ADFG in Juneau, has everything to do with the orange in salmon meat, but not the white in Ivory Kings. The white is all genetics.

All species of Pacific salmon with the ironic exception of reds (our zooplankton-sipping sockeye), and most certainly all Chinook, eat the same foods with the same high iodine, carotenoids and astaxanthin contents. Both orange and white kings eat loads of carotenoids-loaded shrimp, krill and crabs which debunks the orange and white separatist diets theory.

Here’s the why that explains the white, as explained by fish scientists at ADFG.

Most kings have the genetic ability to metabolize pigments from their foods and store the pigments in muscle meat. The stored pigments colorize that meat. One of the most common pigments is orange carotene. Metabolized carotene pigment will color meat reddish-orange to pinkish-red.

White kings, however, lack the gene required to metabolize pigments from their foods into their muscles leaving the flesh neutrally white.

It’s not what they eat that determines the color of a salmon’s fillet, it’s if they can metabolize the pigments into muscle coloration and that ability is determined by pure genetics.

Blame or credit goes to the parents.

The ability to process carotenoids is an inherited trait, according to ADFG.

Research proves that when two white kings are mated they produce white king offspring. Mated orange kings produce orange kings.

When an orange king and a white king mate, the ability to process (orange) carotenoids is dominant and the dominant orange traits will dominate the weaker white traits. Ergo-orange wins. Only when there is a white-white tie will there be a win for white kings.

Physically, orange and white kings are identical. I’ve heard anglers contend that a white king fights harder and eats better. More likely the white king is a healthy wild-spawned, big river fish and the lackluster orange king has some hatchery in its background or is just a weaker specimen. It happens.

As far as the superior flavor, in my opinion it’s a product of convincing publicity. Tell the masses a fish is rare and its meat superior and pretty soon it’s accepted as true—regardless of how subjective individual tastes are.

For me: white or orange, doesn’t matter. A good king fights hard, hits the table like smooth wet butter and it doesn’t matter what color is under the chrome. I’ll wager that a fillet of either color will disappear when placed on a plate that’s been spritzed with olive oil, slow roasted on a plate at 200 degrees for 10 minutes and drizzled with creamed crab meat cucumber sauce or basil pesto, tomatoes and pine nuts.

White kings, according to research scientist Ruth Withler, become more plentiful the farther north from Anacortes that you fish. If you’re a white king enthusiast there are several rivers and deltas with inordinately large runs of genetically-lacking ivory Chinook to target. Instead of 1 king in 20 being white the odds shoot up to 3 in 10 in the Chilkat, Taku, Unuk, and Chickamin rivers, according to ADFG.

In British Columbia the biggest rivers are the dominant white king producers; Fraser and its tributaries, the Nass, Stikine, lower Skeena, and Kitsumkalum (a.ka. Kalum). These are just the standout rivers for white kings—not all of them.

Any river where two white kings get together can miss a gene and produce a white king. The odds are just better in these. And you have to go with the odds, since targeting these fish with sport-fishing gear is no different than targeting common everyday salmon-colored-salmon.

For the best odds of putting a white king in the boat go not to the rivers but to the saltwater concentration areas on the outside, where salmon from multiple wild runs congregate, stage and pass-by.

All white kings are wild fish, and the largest concentrations with the best odds of catching one will be in front of the largest rivers without major Chinook hatcheries. As long as those rivers are north of Latitude 48.7732—the 49th parallel North.

But if you get lucky and pick up a stray Ivory King to the South off Possession Bar or Tillamook Bay, don’t worry. It’ll do just fine roasted at 200 degrees spritzed in olive oil and drizzled with creamed crab meat, and you’re likely to be king of the orange versus white debate at the cleaning table.

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