At quick glance, fresh fish — other than the supermarket catch — may seem as rare in Asheville as a quiet night on Patton Avenue. But dig a bit, and you’ll find numerous fish sellers within a 30-mile radius whose fish passion has them pulling fish from Alaska, Scotland, Florida, and, of course, North and South Carolina.
Take Dave Eckard, owner of Carolina Wild Seafood, and his colleague Bernie Smolnik. On Friday afternoons, once the crocuses are up into December, the pair sells fish next to the French Broad Food Co-op on Biltmore Avenue from the back of a flatbed trailer that Eckard hauls overnight from the North Carolina coast. The fish — caught the day before — may include 25 selections, from soft-shell crabs to speckled sea trout.
Eckard’s fish career began when his parents bought a fish store in the Outer Banks. “I went there 35 years ago to help. Ended up staying,” he says.
He likes his work; especially the wild characters at fish houses. ”Think of Popeye,” he says. “That’s what they’re like.”
A Family Affair
Like Eckard, many local fish sellers fall into the trade through family. Heidi Dunlap, owner of Wild Salmon Company in Asheville, started fishing in Alaska with her father when she was six years old. “I’d clean the salmon on the six-hour drive back to town, taking the roe out. The canneries gave me a check for the roe, and I’d go buy a Cabbage Patch doll.”
Now it’s passion for fishing that keeps Dunlap at sea. “For two months of the year, I go back to our human roots,” says Dunlap. ”When we fish, we’re hunters and gatherers, and all that matters is weather, tide, finding fish and catching them.”
She and her partner, Steve Maher, fish seven days a week May through August, delivering sockeye salmon to the processor and freezing it within six to eight hours. “It’s really fresher frozen than fresh fish,” she says.
Dunlap sells the fish October through December at the Asheville City Market, the North Asheville Tailgate Market, online and to buying clubs as far flung as Charleston, S.C.
Anna Eason, marketing/human resources director for Sunburst Trout Farms in Canton, hooked up with fishing by marrying the founder’s grandson, Ben Eason. (He wooed her by giving her a five-pound tub of smoked trout dip.)
Sunburst’s trout arrive from growers weighing only 4 ounces, then grow to 2 pounds in mercury-free water from Shining Rock Natural Wilderness. Although the fish are farmed, Sunburst uses no hormones or pesticides. The fish eat a natural feed, including a plant yeast and antioxidant, which turns them red.
Sunburst sells its product at the Asheville City Market, to restaurants like Corner Kitchen and local grocery stores like Katuah Market and at their retail store in Waynesville.
Sentelle’s, another family fish effort based in Clyde, North Carolina, evolved from a produce market that Debbie Sentelle Milner’s father bought in 1962. “My dad loved to fish, and no fish were sold in Clyde,” says Milner. “So, he started bringing in fresh fish from the Carolina coasts.” Now Milner manages the seafood, selling several thousand pounds a week.
A line on a second career
When the economy tanked in 2008, so did David Ingle’s job as a builder/contractor. With two sons in college, Ingle decided that Asheville could use some fresh seafood, although he admits that at the time he “didn’t know a thing about the fishing industry.”
Now, Ingle sells 250 pounds of fish every week — even in the snow — in front of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian Restaurant on Merrimon Avenue. He sets up 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and on Saturdays until he sells out.
“Ashevillians want my fish because it’s straight out of the water without preservatives,” says Ingle, who picks up the ice-packed fish from a restaurateur who buys from several North Carolina fishing boats.
Ken Keidel, owner of Off the Hook Seafood Market in Waynesville, is a retired sports publisher with a passion for fishing who moved to Waynesville in 2006. “I wanted to get back into something, so last April, I opened a small seafood market.” Summers, the store is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and Wednesday-Saturday in the fall.
“We’re proudest that we’re a traditional seafood market with the fish displayed on ice so customers can see everything,” he says. “And we’re very picky about what farm-raised fish we buy—they eat naturally with no antibiotics and hormones. But we prefer U.S. wild caught.”
Vonnie Miller, part owner of Cape Fear Seafood in Fairview, didn’t know anything about fish or business. But when her son, a former golf pro in Wilmington, North Carolina, starting bringing fish to Fairview to sell, what else could a mom do but help?
“We sold out of a tent for two years, then on Trout Lily’s Deli & Market porch for three years year-round,” says Miller. “Now we have our own building just down from Trout Lily’s.”
The fish is from the North Carolina coast except for Scottish salmon and Chilean sea bass.
“A lot of our customers say their doctor sent them,” says Miller.
As for the fishing life, no seller would naysay it. “It’s the best job in the world,” says Ingle. “Every customer is happy. ”