With the weather improving and salmon on my mind, it was time to get the Lyla-Kai up and running . I rolled her out into the open and hosed off the thick layer of pollen and other crud that built up over the winter. Funny how something that’s a chore in the summer feels like fun after a long period of little use. Of course, I would have liked to have spent the winter chasing blackmouth (feeder king salmon), but we just had too much on our plates. So washing the boat was enjoyable, and it definitely got me and the kids dreaming about fishing the Sound.
I tinkered around with the trailer lights (salt + water + electrical = constant battle) and other small projects, then hooked her up for the drive to Port Townsend.
Since this is the first vehicle of any kind that I ever purchased new (well, the boat was “lightly used” but the motor was new) I’ve always had it serviced by actual Honda techs. The first year, I had the break-in service done by a local outfit, and the cost seemed a bit high. So I called around and found that it was about three times the going rate. I asked about it, and they basically said “Yup, that’s what we charge.” So I called around some more, and found Port Townsend Honda. Can’t say enough about them. Even thought it’s a bit of a drive, they’re kind enough to book the appointment ahead of time and get the work done in the time it takes me to go eat lunch. That’s the Lyla-Kai just pulling out of Port Townsend Honda, newly serviced and ready to roll.
Now I actually look forward to my yearly trip up there to see Travis and his guys. They do first-rate work at a great price, and “go the extra mile” to make sure it’s done right. On a couple of occasions, in the middle of fishing season, when I needed some work and didn’t have time to go up there, they’ve talked me through the fix on the phone for free. Great, great service.
So yes, this is a commercial endorsement. If you live anywhere in the area and need any kind of Honda work–bike, mower, outboard, generator–I highly recommend checking out the Port Townsend guys. Even if it’s a bit of a drive. This year, in the course of the normal service, they also worked with me to get the idle speed really dialed for trolling, fixed a slight throttle issue and improved the fuel line setup. Going the extra mile, yet again. Now I can barely wait for salmon season.
After all the talking and writing and thinking about eating Columbia River spring Chinook, I can honestly say: It does NOT disappoint! Holy smokes. I truly cannot think of anything I would rather eat, especially salted and grilled over a hot flame, shioyaki style. The picture above is how it starts–the fillet has been relieved of its pin bones, scaled, cut into 1.5-inch thick steaks and liberally salted. I like to sprinkle the fish with about twice as much sea salt as I’d use if I was going to eat it right away, then refrigerate skin-side up for six to 24 hours. The longer it’s going to be before cooking, the more salt I use. The salt will initially suck moisture out of the fish, then the miracle of osmosis takes hold and it draws the moisture back in, sealing the cell walls behind it.
When it comes out of the fridge, I use a sharp knife like a squeegee on the skin to remove moisture and ensure max crispiness. Then it’s a quick trip to the barbecue, with the grill pre-heated to around 500-550 degrees. 2.5 minutes on both sides and an additional 1.5 minutes with skin facing the flame for a total 6.5 minute cook time. You have to be careful, though, because so much fat drips out of the steaks that flames can engulf the fish. Not to mention your hand.
And…here it is, fresh off the grill. YES! The most amazing part about springer is that it’s not just the skin that crisps–the flesh itself sizzles in it’s own fat to create a crisp, caramelized shell. Or wait, maybe the most amazing part is that the inside is so tender and fatty that it literally melts in the mouth. And that’s not just a cliche. I mean it really, truly melts away as you chew. Or wait, the most amazing part is the single-bite combination of crispy, melting, savory textures and flavors all melding together. Yeah, that’s it. We ate this batch with sweet/tart cucumber sunomono to balance the fattiness of the fish, steamed broccoli and mix of Japanese white and Lundberg brown and wild rice. Best meal on the planet!
There are two types of spring Chinook in the Columbia River estuary; both among the finest table fare in the world. The lower river, or “Willamette” strain, springers are identified by white faces and bellies and typically, a more robust shape. The upriver fish, destined to spawn as far away as Idaho, have black faces, gray bellies and a slimmer silhouette. As I said, they are both incredible fish to catch and eat, but the latter is in a class by itself due to the phenomenal amount of fat they store for the long haul upstream. This is an upriver fish, as you can see by the dark face and jaw, and the tools I like for turning it into the best meal I can imagine.
The serrated “ginsu-style” knife I use to scale the fish by dragging the rough, uneven serrations from the tail toward the head of the fish. It only takes a few minutes, and scaling pays off in delicious, crispy skin when it comes off the grill. I like the standard 8″ butcher knife for filleting because the broad, flat blade runs along the backbone better (at least for me) than a typically narrow fillet knife. Finally, the hemostats (borrowed from my fly fishing vest) make short work of removing pin bones from the fillet for completely uninterrupted chewing pleasure. And believe me, this fish is so good, you don’t want anything getting in the way of eating it.
The fat is where it’s at. Think pork bellies or Kobe beef. Upriver Columbia springer flesh is nearly 20% fat, and it coats your hands and knives like lard as you work. If it warms up, orange droplets of oil appear on the cutting board and knife blades. All of which ramps up the enthusiasm for the coming meal. At this point, I can hardly wait for dinner time. Stay tuned!
At about 8:00pm on a warm Friday evening, over a dinner of smoked and grilled spring Chinook at Smarty’s house, the plan was finalized. Smarty pitched the idea, and with springer fat dripping down our chins, how could anyone refuse? Five us would fish out of one boat the next day–weather, fish reports and conditions be damned. It was a one-day opener, our last shot at the best-eating fish on the planet. And in spite of–or perhaps because of–my weak showing last weekend, I was in.
After a couple hours of sleep, we left Bainbridge at 3:30am Saturday morning and met up with the rest of the crew on the lower Columbia. Me, Smarty, John, Neal, 10-year old Alex, two six-month-old yellow labs, a pile of gear and…one small, open boat. Add in whitecaps, 30 knot gusts, horizontal rain and the circus was definitely in town.That’s John and Smarty trying to fly under the rain on the upstream run. And, chattering teeth aside, we all had a blast.
Good fishing does that. We ended up with 10 solid hookups, several other confirmed grabs, and seven gorgeous upriver Columbia springers to the boat. We released two wild fish, leaving us with a boat limit and lots of celebration. That’s Smarty and me, below, during a brief lull between white squalls. Finished up at 8:00pm, gathered for fantastic burgers (at, of all places, the Shell station in Castlerock) and rolled north into the teeth of the weather. Pulled into the driveway here around midnight. Beat, but flying high on the redemptive power of springers in the box. Awesome.
Well…sometimes it happens. Despite a mountain of work and looming house/farm chores, Sweeney and I decided to close out the 2014 spring Chinook season with a two-dayer to the lower Columbia. Everything lined up perfectly–weather, tides, water temp and clarity, reports–and mouthwatering dreams of grilled springers forced us to put responsibilities aside and head south. We really had no choice.
On the way down, a small rattling sound from the trailer suddenly turned into a big rattling sound from the trailer. We pulled over to find a nearly destroyed, too-hot-to-touch left wheel and hub. At this point, I’m already thinking “trip over.” Somehow, though, Sweeney miraculously MacGyvered it back together with combination of a rusty spare hub, the spare tire and some scavenged bearings and lug nuts. Whew. Back on the road. Five miles closer to fishing, thumping and smoke off the left side of the trailer. Flat tire! And our only spare is the one that’s blown. Hence the picture above, of me waiting with the boat and gear while Sweeney headed back to town in the truck to find a new wheel and tire.
To make a long story shorter, we finally put the boat in the water around noon, happy to have the trailer incidents behind us and brimming with optimism. Long faces at the ramp and the fish checker’s meager numbers should have given us warning, but we forged ahead, confident that we could catch fish even if it was slow. And thus began two days of dragging herring on the incoming tides and plunking sardine-wrapped plugs on the outgoing, for a grand total of ZERO springers. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. The goose egg. The dreaded…donut, for crying out loud.
Good reports were coming in from farther upstream, in the Portland/Vancouver metroplex, but the thought of gunwale-to-gunwale fishing in a blue haze of outboard exhaust kept us from moving. We stubbornly stuck with the relative solitude of the far-lower river, and in retrospect, we probably should have bucked up and faced the circus. But we didn’t.
Still, there was plenty to enjoy: the epic Chinese dinner at Yan’s in Kelso (their homemade wor won ton soup is unbelievable), the steep, darkly forested hills above the river, and the electric green foliage exploding from the lowlands. Geese filled the sky heading north, and when the breeze came up out of the west, we could smell the ocean. Mostly, though, I’m thankful for time out on the water with a good buddy who I don’t get to hang out with nearly enough. Turns out, it was a pretty good trip after all. But no springers. Honest.
My fishing and food friends here, upon hearing my dismal report, are accusing me of deception. They claim I’m intentionally lowballing our results to avoid the inevitable mooching of what is surely a huge stash of springers in the fridge. If their suspicions are correct, this is a pretty convincing story, don’t you think?