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For a Perfect Catch in Seattle, Fishmongers Go for the Halibut

At Pike Place Market, fresh fish may fly 20 feet or more before they drop into the waiting hands of a fishmonger.
Photo
Ryan Rector hurls a fish at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle in June. Credit David Ryder for The New York Times

SEATTLE — The catch of the day has a couple of meanings to Mike Kirn, who works at Pike Place Fish Market. If you’re talking fork, plate and a nice dill sauce, he puts his money on white king salmon. But when he is trying to catch one in midair, with hundreds of people clustered around to watch — not an unusual amount on a touristy afternoon — halibut, Mr. Kirn says, is the fish without equal.

Sure, salmon are sleeker and more beautiful — and they are the money fish at Pike Place, clocking in at $46 or more per pound. They glisten like princelings as they go up and up, hurled 20 feet or more, and then down into the waiting, surprisingly gentle hands of a fishmonger. But the ungainly and lumbering flat-bodied halibut is the real glamour-puss of the market when it takes off to fly.

“It’s like a big floppy Frisbee,” Mr. Kirn said. “The crowd loves to see a halibut.”

Fishmongers have been throwing fish for decades in this small shop just off Seattle’s downtown waterfront at Pike Place Market. And for a long time, they have allowed amateurs to try their luck at catching, too. (Vanna White, from TV’s “Wheel of Fortune,” tried a few times, with eventual success.) The practice, and the philosophy of free-form fun that came with it, evolved partly through desperation after a failed expansion in the mid-1980s, the shop’s owner, John Yokoyama, wrote in 2004 in a book called “When Fish Fly.”

“The only way I was going to go for being world famous was if it didn’t cost me any money,” Mr. Yokoyama wrote, with his co-author Joseph A. Michelli.

For first-timers, here’s the drill: You stand sideways to the fish’s flight path, then think of a football, or perhaps a baby — one hand held low, the other high, ready to support the head as the fish comes down. Then you hope for the best.

New employees said that the learning curve is steep. Fish fly at you from the first day on the job. There are no corporate retreats, no training sessions out of the public eye.

“You stand back here and they throw a big fish and you say, ‘Time out, I don’t want to catch this fish,’ but you’ve just got to do it,” said Ryan Hébert (pronounced AY-bear), 36, who has worked just more than a year with the company. “And the more you do it, the more and more you learn,” he added.

Mr. Kirn, 33, said the secret of flight is that while the crowd roars at a good catch, especially the casual-looking but risky one-hander, the real skill is in the throwing, which hardly anyone notices at all.

“It’s like a golf swing, you keep your right arm straight,” said C.J. Conrad, 27, describing the perfect form for tossing. “Then you use your hips.”

A well-thrown fish does a little mid-body flop halfway to its target, then flattens out into an aerodynamic glide, horizontal but with the head slightly up. If all goes well, the final moments are more like a landing than a catch. Sliminess is irrelevant.

Except when it isn’t.

“I picked it up so fast, people didn’t even know,” said Zach Swingle, 27, describing a recent miss.

They also keep a “practice fish” behind the counter, which gets tossed around for fun, or when business is slow. At day’s end, a fish that has been thrown too many times looks exactly as you would expect: beaten up by the experience. This fish is then donated to the zoo, where the bears have it for dinner.

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