Sometimes the best foraging is right at home–in this case, in the very back of the freezer. I was digging around for razor clams to cook for Christmas dinner and came up with a long-lost package of hot-smoked king salmon bellies from 2015. September 2015, to be more exact, meaning they were more than a year old. I thawed ’em out and, incredibly, they were delicious. Perfect. Still firm, still dripping with fat, still smoky and salty and awesome.
And looking at the date, I remembered fishing Willapa Bay with my good friend Sweeney, and how the pelicans posed on pilings outside the harbor that morning, and how the sky turned black with sooty shearwaters in the evening. And how we had to scratch to find our kings, and how stoked we were when we put a couple nice ones in the box. Amazing what you can find in the back of the freezer.
Last month I spent a few days on the Clearwater River, outside of Lewiston, Idaho. I hadn’t fished it before, and wanted to experience a salmon and steelhead river so far from the sea. In an icy downstream wind, we found a fast-flowing coldwater river of broad riffles and perfect, cobbled bottom running through hills covered in pine, dry grass and rock. The steelhead were few and far between, but it hardly mattered–this was the kind of water I dream of, in a place of exhilarating beauty.
An eddy was littered with the bodies of spawned out king salmon, and it was hard to look at them and not think of what it took for them to get here. 450 miles. Eight dams. Uncountable threats. And these fish did it as six-inch smolts going downstream, roamed the Pacific Ocean for years, and somehow found their way back as full-grown adults.
The night before, there was a hearing in Lewiston on the removal of the four Lower-Snake River dams. Two weeks later, there was another in Boise on the same day as a crowd rallied and marched in Seattle to bring down these deadbeat dams. There is opposition, for sure, but momentum is building. I can feel it. We need to keep the pressure on, the interest up, and I think we can one day make the trip home easier for thousands of inland salmon and steelhead. I want to be there when it happens.
Jed showed up to fish one morning and before we hit the road, he handed me a single, perfect matsutake mushroom. I stashed it in my pocket, and from time to time throughout the day, I’d catch whiffs of the unique scent–a mix of pine trees, cinnamon and something earthy and mushroom-y. Someone once described matsutakes as smelling like red hots in a dirty sweat sock, but I don’t get the sweat sock part. They just smell delicious to me. More than once, my mouth watered at the thought of it.
Fast forward to dinner prep. Bruce and Aaron had a stack of enormous moose steaks; Calvin and April ran out to the truck, dug through a cooler, and produced a deer backstrap; Yvon broke out a magnum of Chateau Musar Bruce had given him; Rick was outside burning logs into perfect barbecue coals. I washed some rice, added the hydrating water from dried shiitake mushrooms, a bit of rice vinegar, a pinch of salt. Then, with great anticipation, I cut into that gorgeous matsutake. Inside, something moved. It was alive with small, white maggots. I recoiled. What to do? Figured I should give the crew the option. I showed them the wriggling mushroom slices and said we can either add it to the rice as planned, or toss it out and just go with plain rice. Someone said, “The rice is going to boil, right?” Another said, “Hate to waste a good matsutake.” There was a moment of silence, then the crew voted “Go for it” without objection.
It was delicious. And part of one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in a long time. Great food, great friends, great spirits. And a few maggots just to keep things on the adventurous side.