In the late ’80s, Mike Hiebert lived on a boat in Northern California’s Bodega Harbor. He fished by day, smoked salmon by night, and sold his product at Bay Area farmers markets. Mike lived with a wolf, a gift from an Inuit family in Alaska. He hung crab pots off the side of his boat, and at the end of the day, he’d split crab salad with his wolf and a neighborhood seal. It was just Mike, a wolf, a seal, and a boat, until 1990, when Mike met Sally.
As Mike tells it, “I was single, loose and fancy free. This hotshot lady walks into San Rafael Farmers Market. She was a great looking gal. I’d sell her my salmon.” Sally continues: “I bought salmon jerky for a trip to the Grand Canyon. I spent the entire month in the Grand Canyon thinking about the salmon dude at the farmers market…A year later, we were married at Bodega Head.”
If it wasn’t for a stint as the regional sales manager for Melitta coffee in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Mike never would have discovered smoked salmon. And if he never discovered smoked salmon, he never would have met Sally. Mike first encountered smoked salmon while traveling for Melitta in Washington and Canada. Mike said, “Many native tribes along the North Coast took me in. We’d have salmon, and I’d keep the recipes. I made it my focus for several years.” Mike developed a passion for smoked salmon so strong, he left Melitta to do it for a living, “freaking out a lot of (his) big-time corporate friends.” He started fishing up and down the West Coast and selling alderwood smoked salmon under the banner Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoke. The name pairs Mike’s childhood and adult nicknames. As a boy, Mike had a fondness for the expression “Holy smoke,” and as an adult, a friend took to calling him “Cap’n” Mike once he bought his boat and became a licensed sea captain.
In addition to the North Coast Native secrets, Mike credits his superior results to top ingredients. “Salmon has to be fresh, the salt has to be the right salt, the water has to be the right water.” While Mike thinks the flavor that comes from smoking fish with oak and applewood is okay, it’s not good enough. Mike said, “Alderwood is to smoked fish as French oak is to chardonnay. You need alderwood to make it pop.”
Cap’n Mike’s fish are caught by a network of family and friends “from Bodega Bay to Bristol Bay, Alaska.” Once Cap’n Mike selects his fish and brings it to the shop, he will either wet or dry brine them with sea salt, spices, and honey or brown sugar. He then treats the fish to top secret smoke and heating steps. He and Sally then package and label the fish and bring it to market.
Cap’n Mike and Sally have expanded their scope over the years. In addition to Alderwood Smoked Salmon, they now sell salmon that’s liberally seasoned with black pepper and garlic.
Smoked salmon provided Mike with even more than he planned. He’s gained two lifelong passions, and has managed to earn a comfortable living. Mike and Sally are currently up to 12 Bay Area farmers markets and do brisk online business. Their fish has been acknowledged as the best in the country by several leading publications. With continued passion and hard work, who knows how far salmon can lead them.
Cap’n Mike’s fish is available at their Rohnert Park shop and 12 Bay Area farmers markets. They sell Tuesday in Napa and at San Francisco’s Ferry Building; Thursday at the Marin Civic Center; Friday in St. Helena; Saturday at the Ferry Building and Oakland’s Grand Lake; Danville and Pleasanton; and Sunday at Ferry Building, Marin Civic Center, Oakland’s Jack London Square, and Walnut Creek.
You don’t have to be in the Bay Area to enjoy Cap’n Mike’s smoked fish. Mike and Sally ship their full menu through www.holysmokedsalmon.com. There’s a fish of the month club, where Mike will select and ship two of his seasonal favorites. There are even gift boxes with names like Red, White & True Blue, Hanukkah Happiness, and The Entire Ship, “a pound of everything onboard.”
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