I love fried fish. My mother fried smelt to perfection. The little daggers of crunch were fantastic. My wife Peggy grew up on fried smelt from the Pacific Northwest, too. Her dad Ike and the whole family enjoyed smelt. The Toutle is a tributary of the Cowlitz River, which used to be the mainstay of our smelt eating days. I dipped smelt a couple of times, but my trout fishing usually just ended up as a walk in the river. One time about 45 years ago, my cousin Charlie stopped by with a wash tub half full of smelt. Peg spent one day cleaning the guts and cutting off the heads to prepare them for freezing. The second day’s afternoon she just started packing them up to freeze in their God-given form. They were all great and she realized that you don’t have to clean smelt if they are the small ones. I enjoyed walking the Nisqually River as well as South Prairie Creek. Smelt led me to trout and trout led me to salmon and steelhead.
Ike was also a great trout fisherman. He and mom Rita used to fish up at Mineral and environs. Ike took six of his grandchildren, three at a time, boys for one overnight and girls for the next, trout fishing on Alder Lake. But the boys had very short attention spans and soon annoyed him with their twitching and lack of concentration. When the girls came up he did much better.
When we visit seafood restaurants, we usually have the rainbow trout, oysters, scallops or salmon. We love our local favorites.
Over the last couple of years I have purchased salmon from Native Americans along the Puyallup River and Chambers Bay. Here local people seemingly lust after Copper River Salmon, but another friend prefers Columbia River salmon and he’s a dedicated fisherman.
Another fisherman friend is Dave Jones of Alpenview Lodge on Kodiak Island. When he isn’t at the lodge he lives down here in Pierce County. We had coffee one morning and he told me all about steelhead and how they differ from salmon. Trout, salmon, and steelhead are all in the same family.
Dave says, “Steelhead is a sea run rainbow trout and it has a different life than salmon. Steelhead will usually, overwinter in fresh water during their spawning runs at any rate. Here (in Kodiak) they come upstream in late September and October. It’ll overwinter in freshwater, spawn in April or early May, and then head back out to the ocean.
They don’t necessarily come into spawn every year. So, a steelhead is maybe four or five years old before it spawns or something to that effect. Their numbers are in line with the King salmon run numbers. A few thousand fish in the run. They’re not as prolific as salmon. Steelhead are a game fish that has really captured the attention of a dedicated following of steelheaders, steelhead anglers, and they will go to the ends of the earth and take on what is not the best time of year or anything else in pursuit of that fish. All steelhead on Kodiak Island are wild, which is not the case everywhere. A lot of hatchery fish are mixed in at other areas. When the steelhead come in here in the latter part of September and October it’s kind of past the general tourist season and innocent fall weather. You might have some Bluebird days, but you might be taking on some pretty strong winds, rain, and even ice in some cases.
Steelheads are really great fighters. Really strong, pound for pound compared to a similar sized salmon. They can put up a better fight, I guess. All fish are individuals, however. I’ve had some fish that weren’t supposed to fight too good fight very well and vice versa. As a general rule a steelhead is a real strong fighting fish and we are on the northern most extremity I guess, the steelheads natural range, and we’re working with a few thousand fish in a steelhead run of less than 10,000 fish or something like that. We catch and release all steelhead. We don’t eat those or anything.
Here on Kodiak, we have tens of thousands of Silvers, hundreds of thousands of pink Salmon, and hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon. So, if we’re looking for something to eat. We’ve got plenty. What we don’t need to be harvesting is fish from a less robust population, I guess you’d say.”
I enjoy listening to Dave talk about the fish and bears of his Kodiak oasis. He’s not alone in his fishing attitude.
“The finest gift you can give to any fisherman is to put a good fish back, and who knows if the fish that you caught isn’t someone else’s gift to you?”
In addition to salmon we have also developed a taste for steelhead. I don’t pretend to be a fisherman. Peg and I land our catch locally at grocery and fish stores. The steelhead is farm raised here in Washington State.
“Our steelhead farms are located on the Columbia River in a remote part of Washington’s Okanagan Highlands within the Colville Nation. We have a mutually beneficial relationship with the Native American Colville Tribe where we employ many tribe members as well as pay a royalty for use of their land. Over the years we have developed a strong working relationship and together provide millions of pounds of top quality steelhead to the market annually.” – pacificseafood.com/why-pacific-seafood/aquaculture/columbia-river-steelhead/
Peg bakes a nice salmon, but I adore her salmon and steelhead steaks. She does one version with crushed pepper corns, which I almost dream about. Although for most of her cooking, she had numerous spices, but for smelt, trout, salmon and steelhead fish fries, she stays close to the basics like one of our favorite video cooks, Alton Brown. Here is his instructions for a whole trout.
“Season fish on meat side with salt and pepper. Lightly dredge fish in flour and shake off excess. When pan is good and hot, add Canola oil followed immediately by 1 tablespoon butter. As soon as foaming subsides, place fish in pan with the skin side down. Jiggle pan for the first 10 seconds to keep the fish from sticking. Cook until golden crust forms on meat. Carefully turn fish away from you and again jiggle pan for the first few seconds. Cook until skin turns golden brown.” – Alton Brown, Good Eats
Never, ever overcook whole fish, fish fillets, or fish steaks. We love them all. I like to compare Peg’s salmon and steelhead steaks with Goya’s – “Still-Life with Three Salmon Steaks” – They are works of art.