Summer is flying by, and I’ve had little time to spend processing photos and blogging. So here’s a quick handful of pictures from this summer.
I do love fireworks, and I can get some really good ones right down the road in Cathlamet. The dog, however, does not think so highly of fireworks…
I went out one day and sat in the skiff for an hour in a place I had never tried fishing in before, and brought home this nice summer chinook.
Way back in April, I took Forbes magazine reporter Rebecca Ruiz out kayaking on the river here. She wrote this article that came out in the July 13 edition, and featured a few of my photos.
Raspberries have been really prolific this year, and for once, I have been staying on top of making jam as they get ripe. So far I’ve canned 18 pints of raspberry jam.
Alice and I took a 20 mile skiff ride up to Ginni’s place on the island and back. It was fun, and since Cathlamet has a dock, we even stopped and grabbed some groceries on the way home. I love river life.
This is the gate to my little patch of forest. The grass gets really tall now that the sheep are gone.
We got a bunch of coho salmon from the Astoria based trolling vessel “Little John”, and we smoked it.
The feral bunnies still come in the yard and eat my kale, and dig in my beds.
Wapato was a staple food for the native people here. It grows in the mud in the freshwater tidal sloughs and bays around here, and when properly cultivated and maintained, it produces an edible tuber, similar to a potato. Here’s some wapato underwater at high tide.
Chatterbox orchid (Epipactis Gigantea) grows on the abandoned pilings around here.
So, this is one of my other favorite things to do with salmon. Gravlax is basically cold cured salmon, and the recipe originated in Scandinavia, where so many of the interesting ways of preparing fish come from.
Start with a couple of small fillets. I usually use coho, but this year I saved a couple of fillets off of my spring chinook instead, since I couldn’t wait for coho season to have some of this delicious treat. I freeze the fillets for a few days to kill any parasites, since gravlax does not involve any cooking of the fish.
Thaw out your fillets and then rub them down with a light coat of olive oil, probably not an original Scandinavian ingredient, but what the heck. Then I usually rub them down with a little scotch whisky, but this time I used a little sake, since I am all out of good scotch. I usually grind a little bit of pepper on the fillets too.
Then mix up a cup of non-iodized canning salt and a cup of sugar, and put a thin layer of this in the bottom of a glass dish or pie pan. Lay the first fillet on this salt sugar mix, skin side down, and coat it well with more of the sugar/salt mixture. Put on a layer of thin slices of red onion. Cover that with a handful or two of fresh dill, and then another layer of onion slices.
Coat the other fillet with the sugar/salt mixture and lay that on top, skin side up, and then use the rest of the sugar/salt mixture to cover everything well. Cover it up and put the whole thing in the fridge, after admiring your work of course, and maybe having a shot or two of the scotch.
Twelve hours later, pull the dish out of the fridge. There will be a lot of brine now in the dish, from all the moisture that the salt has pulled out of the fillets. Using a spatula, turn the whole thing over, so the top fillet is now on the bottom. Use a spoon and pour the brine all over the whole assembly, admire your work again, and maybe repeat that scotch thing, too. Then return it to the fridge for another 12 hours.
This is what it looks like after 12 hours.
When the second twelve hours is over, pull it out again and separate the fillets. Scrape off all of the salt and dill and onion, and wipe the fillets down with paper towels. Now they are ready to eat. Take thin slices off, at a shallow angle, and put them on rye crackers, with cream cheese and slices of fresh red onion, or toast, or bagels, or whatever you like. In the Sunset Magazine fish cookbook, where I first learned how to do this, there is a recipe for a delicious mustard sauce that you can put with the fish as well.
Bon appetit! You have just taken a couple of small salmon fillets, and a few dollars of other ingredients and made it into a delicacy that sells in the fancy delis for $30/pound or more, and yours is going to taste a lot better!
People are often surprised when I tell them I can my own fish. The first time I canned fish, it was albacore, in California, and the instructions we had to follow made it needlessly messy and complicated. So here is a little photo essay of how I can salmon at home.
WARNING! Please be aware that there are hazards to this activity, and some of the risks are worth noting and making a strong warning about. Canners, operating under pressure, can explode if misused or if the valves and other safety features are not working properly! Also, on some types of canners, there is a pressure release valve that should be tested every year. Failure to do that could create unsafe pressure levels in the canner, or, fail to reach the adequate temperature to produce safe food. Don’t rely on just my instructions here! Read a book, or better yet, the instruction manual with your canner! If you insist on doing something boneheaded and blowing yourself up, or canning up a nice crop of botulinum, well, don’t come crying to me. I told you so!
I like to use wide mouth, half pint jars. Pints are too big, I think, and half pints make a bite-sized, less imposing gift for the faint of heart. Cut the fish so as to fit in whatever size jar you use, and carefully pack it into each jar, as fully as you can without going over the top of the jar. Throw a pinch of salt on the top of each jar’s contents.
Then carefully wipe each jar’s sealing edge clean, and put a NEW lid on, with a ring and screw it down snug.
My canner is pretty much the cream of the crop: an All American, aluminum model 921. It has a weighted pressure control, rather than a petcock. I like the weighted kind better, but don’t lose your weight! It’s a drag to have a canner full of fish starting to warm up and then realize that you can’t find the weight. This canner also has no rubber gasket, which can fail. It has a carefully machined fit lid, and you need to dog the lid down evenly and snugly. Pack the jars in the canner. Use one of these metal layer separators on the bottom too. Put a couple of inches of water in the bottom before you close it up!
Once you get the canner packed and sealed up, put it on the heat, and watch for when it starts to vent steam. Once you get a good head of steam coming out of the vent for 10 minutes, then either close the petcock, or put the weight on, using the 10 PSI setting whichever you use. When the pressure comes up to 10, then start the clock. I use an hour and fifty minutes at 10 PSI.
When the time is up, turn off the heat and let it cool off. I usually deal with it in the morning, so it is good and cold when I have to handle it. I check and clean each jar as it comes out and then label it with a pen on the lid. Done!
If I figure an eight ounce tin of hand canned fish might go for 6 or 7$ at the co-op, then my 12# fish is “worth” about $100-120 if I had to buy it at the store.
And I’m not done. I decided on this fish to take a couple of small fillets to make gravlax out of. I usually use coho for that, and have never made gravlax from a springer before. Should be good!
Last but not least, I take the head and fins and all the other scraps and put it in the dutch oven with a little butter and cook it up on the stove. Salmon cheeks….. mmmmm…
On my eighth fishing day on the river this year, I finally managed to put a fish in the boat. It was a cold and rainy morning, but since the season is only open three days a week right now, I have been making myself get out there on every open day, for at least a couple of hours. Today, it paid off, after only an hour and a half at anchor.
Not only did I manage to hook a springer, but no seals or sea lions got to it first, AND it was a hatchery fish, meaning that I could actually keep it. This is the first time since 2006 that I’ve managed to keep a springer. Last year I got skunked completely, and the year before the seals got the one fish I had near the boat.
For you fish geeks out there, here’s the specifics:
I was anchored up, in 17 feet of water alongside Welch Island near Skamokawa. I was fishing a sliver and green striped K14 Kwikfish, at the very end of a strong ebb tide. Fish weighed 12#, troll dressed.
It’s been a long and grumpy winter for me, with lots of time spent on the phone and email trying to sort out a new way forward for our kayak center here in Skamokawa. It’s easy to lose perspective when you sit inside all day, and a couple of weeks ago, I finally started breaking away from the office to get out on the water. I put the skiff in the water on my birthday, March 10 and started fishing for spring chinook. So far, I haven’t caught anything, but it is early yet, and tomorrow is the first day of another three day opening, so maybe my salmon luck will change soon.
And yesterday, I finally got out in a kayak again, for the first time in weeks. I took out the Valley Q-Boat, which was loaned to me by Rob Avery of Valley Kayaks. It is a fiberglass, hard chined, Greenland style kayak. It seemed to roll pretty well, and for an 18 foot long kayak, was very maneuverable and nimble. Andrew took out one of the new plastic Valley Avocets and we paddled down to Three Tree Point and back. I took the harpoon along just for fun, and found that I’m sadly out of practice, compared to what I was able to do with that last fall. Sigh…
Every summer, staring in July, coho and chinook salmon start gathering up in the ocean offshore of the mouth of the Columbia River. They are getting ready to start their migration upriver, to the stream that they were born in, to lay eggs and start the cycle over again. And every August 1st, the summer river fishing season starts at Buoy Ten, near Ilwaco and the ocean.
Buoy Ten is the western boundary of the river fishery. Beyond Buoy Ten is the legendary Columbia River bar, and then the Pacific Ocean. To fish in the ocean, you have to go out past Buoy Four, which gets you out past the jetty tips and out of the worst of the turbulent waters of the bar.
I started fishing at Buoy Ten in 2004, a few months after buying my aluminum Valco Bayrunner skiff, which was the first craft I owned that was capable of handling the waters at the mouth of the Columbia River. My brother James and I caught several fish that year, fishing inside the river, behind Buoy Ten. The following year was a very good year for Columbia River salmon. Every fishing trip I took that summer was a success, bringing home at least one salmon, including several kings, or chinook. Many days I kept two, which is the limit. The fishing has not been that good since!
That summer was also the first time I decided to brave a bar crossing on my own. I had been fishing inside all day and was getting nothing, while the radio was crackling with awesome fishing reports from the vicinity of the CR Buoy, several miles outside in the ocean. The weather was mild and the waters seemed pretty flat where I was. The radio reports were saying that the bar crossing was easy, so I finally decided to give it a try. I had read several articles about bar crossing, including this one at salmonuniversity.com, and so with that in mind, I headed outside, following the “red line”, or the row of red, even numbered buoys that mark the Oregon side of the shipping channel. The last one in the row of numbered buoys is number two and then it is about two and a half nautical miles to the “CR” buoy, where all the fish were supposedly being caught, about eight nm from the beach in Oregon.
It took just a short time that day to catch my limit of salmon, and ever since I have fished in the ocean if it is possible to get outside safely.
I have had a lot of adventures at the Buoy Ten fishery in the intervening years. My brother caught a 30 pound king one year at the CR buoy, on the same day we discovered a rather large leak in the Valco. Our desire to get back inside safely pushed us to a poorly timed bar crossing, which we survived unscathed. However, I will never forget what that water looked like as we came back across in a 16′ skiff with a bilge full of water, while the tide was still ebbing pretty hard. I have never seen water doing so many contradictory things in such a short distance!
The following year, in a larger fiberglass boat, I cut too close to the “A” jetty near the Ilwaco entrance and hit a submerged rock, which tore the outdrive right off the back of the boat. I started sinking immediately and fortunately was able to radio the US Coast Guard who came and towed me in to the boat ramp and helped me trailer the crippled boat. That one is still sitting in the driveway awaiting repairs, two years later. It is not easy to find old Mercruiser parts, and when you do find them, they are not cheap!
We have broken fishing poles with fish still on the line, inadvertently caught flounder when trolling too close to the bottom, and had many, many crab traps stolen by local scumbags. I took Alice out across the bar for her 13th birthday and she caught her first salmon ever, in the ocean near the CR. That day we hooked the first fish as I was letting the line out on the first pole. It literally took about eight seconds! We had two fish in less than 45 minutes.
This year, though, with my ultra-busy schedule and the extraordinary cost of gasoline and diesel, I did not fish nearly as many days down there as I have in the past. I went out in the ocean by myself for a couple of days near the middle of August and kept one nice silver, and then my brother came down near the end of August and we fished for two days, but inside the river, as the ocean was closed by then. He kept two silvers on the second day and that was it for our 2008 Buoy Ten experience. It was closed the next day, due to higher than expected catch rates on a smaller than expected run of fish.
The second day I was fishing down there by myself, I took some video with the little Pentax. It was getting late in the afternoon and the northwest wind was really starting to kick up. This is the first time I’ve tried posting a video clip here. Check it out:
Now, I have gotten a lot of teasing from friends and family about the cost of my salmon habit, when measured in gallons of diesel and gasoline at $4 each. And admittedly, I have brought home some very expensive salmon over the years. But two years ago, I finally bought one of those “Little Chief” smokers from the sporting goods store, and the equation looks a lot better now. If you have to buy smoked salmon at the store, you will pay about $25/pound for it in a year when there is not a shortage of salmon. So one good sized silver, when filleted and put through the smoking process, can easily become “worth” about $200 or better. That buys a lot of gasoline!
And my salmon, smoked with alder twigs off of the land here, tastes way better than any smoked salmon you will ever find in a store! The recipe is here.
Well, it’s that time of year again, when the first big salmon fishing event of the calendar year happens, and right at my proverbial doorstep. Columbia River spring Chinook is what I’m talking about. Starting in early March, the first few spring Chinook start making their way into the river. In a “good year”, by mid-April there will be more than a thousand a day crossing the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam.
The first year I started fishing for springers was a “good year”, and I learned enough to be able to hook a dozen of these amazing fish that season, but I only landed one, a native, on the last day. The natives cannot be kept in the springer fishery, so that one went back in the river. That was in 2004. The next year, I managed to catch and keep this one. I think it was the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen.
This was the only springer I’ve ever managed to keep. I lost two last year, one to a crafty harbor seal.
Springer fishing is famous for consuming one’s life, gobbling up hours of river time, gasoline and tackle and rarely producing a fish. My friend Brian at Cape Falcon Kayak told me he doesn’t believe springers actually exist.
Still, this has got to be my favorite fishery, for a lot of good reasons. The easiest to understand is that it is literally in my backyard. I live 3 miles from the river, at one of the most popular springer fishing areas, between Cathlamet and Skamokawa. So it is really easy and cheap for me to fish here. I can tie up my boat at the kayak center dock and leave it there all season, avoiding the hassle of launching and retrieving the boat every day. I can get out and fish for a couple hours whenever I can spare the time. It is a wonderful time to be on the river, as the weather is unpredictable and can provide anything from snow to rain, frost to sunshine, with a liberal helping of rain. I love it. And of course, if you ever do catch a springer, it will make all those hours worthwhile. They really are the best eating salmon.
There are two primary techniques for springer fishing: trolling and anchoring. When I was first starting out, I preferred to anchor up, since there was less hassle with changing depths and dodging other river traffic. Nowadays, I like trolling better, as it at least feels like I am doing something by moving around over different territory, and you can see more of the rest of the fleet and see how others are doing. It’s a little more social.
Both techniques involve a spreader and a cannonball weight of 3-6 ounces on a 2-3 foot dropper. For trolling, you add a rotating flasher of some kind, and a mooching rigged herring on a 40# leader. Use a shorter leader, maybe just a couple of feet, for cloudy water, and a longer leader for clearer water. Tweak the herring so that it spins in circles as you tow it through the water. The tricky part is keeping this rig moving along just off the bottom. The depth is constantly changing and if you aren’t near the bottom, you aren’t really fishing. If you are too close to the bottom, the weight starts bouncing and tangles your gear, and again, you aren’t really fishing. This takes constant checking and adjustment and it helps to have a good depth sounder so that you know where the bottom is. Generally, you want to be in 15-30 feet of water.
For anchoring up, you also want to be in that 15-30 feet deep water, preferably right next to an underwater drop off, so that your gear is fishing right near an underwater “wall” on one side. The fish will tend to travel next to these walls. This technique is utilized mostly on the ebb tide, so that the outgoing water holds your gear right in the path of the fish as they are travelling upriver. You can use the herring rig for this, but most folks use a wobbling lure or spinner of some kind. Luhr Jensen’s Kwikfish is a popular choice, or a Brad’s Wobbler, or you can make your own spinners.
Either method you use, you will do a lot of waiting for something to happen.
This year, the season in this part of the river was very short, only ten days. I was working for part of it, so I only went out six times, for a few hours each. I didn’t get so much as a bite, and even when surrounded by as many as 40-50 other boats, I only saw a few fish get caught all season. No matter what the DFW says, the fishing down here was absolutely terrible, even by spring chinook standards. But even if there are only a few fish being caught, that still means somebody is going to get lucky. Today, on the last day of the season, these guys managed to catch a keeper right as I trolled past them, and I managed to get quick picture as they hauled it aboard.
And that was as close as I got to a spring Chinook in 2008.