The first Copper River king salmon of the season -- a 40-pound specimen -- was hoisted aloft Friday morning as the annual first shipment of the prized salmon arrived in Seattle.

It was the ceremonial first fish, delivered from Alaska to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Pilots handed it over to waiting chefs for the fourth annual Copper Chef Cook-Off. This year, three area chefs were joined by an Air Force Reserve chef.

Pat Donahue, executive chef at Anthony's Restaurants, has dominated the competition, winning all three previous contests. But this year, he was knocked off his perch by John Howie, executive chef at Seattle's Seastar. The other two contestants were Master Sgt. Robert Shulman and Chris Bryant of Wildfin American Grill.

MORE: How the Copper River salmon craze began

The chefs had 30 minutes to prepare and serve the salmon. The panel of judges this year included Seattle Mariners Hall of Famer Jay Buhner and Mike Fourtner, deckhand on the Time Bandit, one of the crab-fishing vessels featured on TV's "Deadliest Catch."

Defending champ Donahue told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday that Anthony's patrons start calling the Washington-based restaurants in early May, wanting to know when the Copper River kings will arrive. "There is great excitement around the first salmon arriving," he said.

"Many people do not know that the Copper River is primarily a sockeye run," Donahue said. "We have very knowledgeable guests -- some prefer the kings and others the sockeye."

The king salmon are known for their high oil content -- "we love to char-grill them." The sockeye "have a brilliant red color and are ideal for roasting on an alder plank."

"We love to do simple preparations that showcase the flavor of the salmon and pair them with fresh local ingredients" such as rhubarb, asparagus and chives, he said.

Donahue says the annual contest spurs him and his team to get creative with new salmon recipes. No word yet on his 2013 creation, but last year's recipe really made use of the rhubarb. Alaska Airlines shares the recipe: Copper River king alder planked with morel strata, rhubarb huckleberry relish and rhubarb coulis.

Friday's planeload carried 24,600 pounds of fish, according to the Associated Press, and Alaska Airlines had scheduled three more salmon flights Friday. The airline says it will ship more than 2 million pounds of salmon this year across its 95-city network.

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