Every other year at the end of August a bunch of friends get together to fish, laugh, and fish some more. We know each other through that most post-post modern of mediums, the Internet chat group, in this case a fly-fishing forum. Too bad Marshall McLuhan isn’t around to witness and comment on the forging of such connections. If I could pull an Alvy Singer I would.
Our rallying site adds to the post modern twist: the industrial port of Seattle where the Duwamish River empties into Elliott Bay. Yet this isn’t meant to be an ironic sort of fish slumming. As my friend Nope puts it, this is the most democratic of fisheries. Recent immigrants line the riprap, factory workers come out to throw a line during lunch break, and well-heeled anglers in yachts patrol the shipping channels. It’s not a scenic place to wet a fly in the traditional sense—it’s no Montana as portrayed in A River Runs Through It—but it has its own beauty. This is the grittiest of urban foraging, complete with container ships, trash compactors, big-bellied planes taking off and landing at nearby Boeing Field, cranes swiveling overhead, barges blowing their bullhorns, and a silhouette of stilettoed skyscrapers in the distance. Oh, and the place is a Superfund site.
With pontoons, kickboats, even sketchy rubber rafts, we take to the water armed with flyrods and round up our quarry, the pink salmon. Also known as humpies for the pronounced hunchbacks developed by males in the spawning phase, pink salmon have a two-year life cycle and return to local rivers every other year. Not nearly as esteemed as their bretheren the kings, silvers, and sockeyes, their flesh is less deep red and oil-saturated, so commerically they’re mostly used by the canneries. But pinks are good biters, especially on a fly, and their meat smokes up very nicely.
Besides, the pink is a scrappy fish that seems to have taken to the scraps left behind in our devastated world. They’re our fish, and we love them. Most pinks around Puget Sound average three to five pounds; those heading up the Duwamish to spawning grounds on the Green River run a little larger. We caught several in the six to seven pound range, including especially large dime-bright females.
Fishing the beaches during a large run is productive, but once the fish converge at the tidal mouths of their natal streams the action can get silly. This is the time to lean on the oars. Like fly-fishing for trout, you put the fly in the ring of the rise and WHAM! Fish on. At the peak you can have fish after fish slamming your fly—a notion that runs counter to most of what you hear about fly-fishing for salmon—and each one puts a solid bend in a 6-, 7-, or even 8-weight rod, towing a kickboat in circles before it succumbs to the net. We herders find a likely corner away from the barges and tugs to circle our wagons. Pinks run this gauntlet at their own peril, especially if my friend Bubba is tossing a line. Bubba has dialed in the Seattle pink fishery in the last decade like no one else and watching him fish is a lesson in humility. (A crack photographer as well, he contributed a few of the shots that accompany this post and video.)
BTW, if someone tells you the pink isn’t worth keeping for the table, you smile and nod while you stack that limit in your cooler. I catch enough pinks every other year to take care of all my smoked salmon needs, and the brightest ones hit the barbecue the same day.
It’s easy to get worked up about all the possibilities for smoked salmon. You can use 101 different spices, juices, aromatics, etc. But if you catch fish in quantity, as we do during the pink run, you also gain a new understanding of what hunter-gatherer cultures were up against. For the two weeks I actively fished—about half the run—I lost more than a lot of sleep. Fish, work, fish some more, clean and fillet, put the kids to bed, brine the fish, go to bed, wake up and rinse off the brined fish, then fish the morning tide, work, fish until dark, clean and fillet, put the kids to bed, stay up late smoking the first batch and brining the next, haul stinky garbage to curb, try to clean kitchen before wife goes ballistic, sleep a few hours, get up and fish…and so on.
Notice how during that entire two-day cycle I only managed to smoke one batch. With limits of 4 to 6 fish daily (depending on area), we were drowning in salmon. Not that I’m objecting. So the point? Stick to basics. A simple brine of brown sugar, salt, and garlic is really all you need, with a dry brine being easier and less messy than a wet brine.
4 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup pickling salt
1 head garlic, cloves peeled & chopped
black pepper to taste
Mix the dry brining ingredients. Generously cover each piece of salmon (I cut pink salmon fillets into thirds), then place skin-up in a non-reactive dish. Refrigerate for 6-8 hours. The brine will have become a soupy mess after water has been leached out of the fish. Gently rinse off each piece and allow to air-dry on paper towels for a couple hours until a pellicle forms—the tacky (not wet) outer layer of flesh that is so loaded with flavor.
For the actual smoking I use a Weber “Bullet,” but it’s possible to employ a regular gas grill in a pinch. A water pan is essential for keeping the fish from drying out. For wood chips I like to use fruit trees: apple, or cherry if I can get it. Alder is good too. If not green, the chips need to be immersed in a bucket of water for 30 minutes, then tossed on the coals in handfuls. Everyone has their own theories about temperature and smoking duration. Hot smoking will always be quicker than cold smoking. Because pink salmon fillets aren’t thick, I usually figure on smoking for about an hour, even with a small amount of coals, maybe an hour and a half at most.
The last step is vacuum-sealing. I’ve kept properly packaged smoked salmon in the deep freeze for two years without any appreciable loss of flavor or tenderness.
Blackberry Must & Citrus Cured Salmon
Another option is cured salmon. While making blackberry wine with my friend Becky [future post], her chef pal Ashlyn turned me on to a use for the leftover must, the mashed up fruit that settles on the bottom of the barrel during the initial fermentation phase. Once you rack the wine for the first time, the must is discarded. But Ashlyn suggested I use it to cure fresh salmon. So I did.
2 lb salmon fillet(s)
3/4 cup pickling salt
1 cup brown sugar
1 each zest of a lemon, lime & orange
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup blackberry must*
* If you happen to have some blackberry must laying around, by all means use it. If not, the rest of the ingredients make an excellent cure on their own.
Mix all ingredients minus the must in a food processor. Next add the must a little at a time, enough to color the cure but not so much as to make it soggy. Spread a thick layer of cure on bottom of non-reactive dish, up to 1/4 inch. Lay salmon, skin side up, on top of cure, then pack remaining cure on top of the salmon. Cover salmon with plastic wrap and weight down with a few pounds (e.g., cans from the cupboard). Flip salmon in 12 hours. Salmon is finished after 24 hours. Rinse and dry.
The cured salmon will be darker, with an attractive, slightly purple hue from the must, plus there will be a smattering of blackberry seeds that give it extra texture. Slice thinly off the top and eat within a week. I had mine on pumpernickel with a dollop of creme fraiche and chives.
And remember to kiss that first pink salmon of the season. They’re the only species of salmon left in the Lower 48 that gives us a hint of what salmon fishing was once like in the not-so-distant past.