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!
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.