In the midst of what’s been a long stretch of rain, wind and more rain–seems like we’ve had a power outage about once a week since September–I was dreaming of spring. I know, it’s early. Not even winter yet, for heaven’s sake. But the rivers were blown, the Sound a sea of whitecaps, and my office an icebox. In other words…yuck.
So I dug around in the freezer and came up with a big chunk of Columbia River spring Chinook, the greatest eating fish in the world, and at least to us, the true symbol of spring in the Northwest. And thanks to the miracle of modern vac-sealing technology, it looked pretty good. Almost eight months in the freezer, but my mouth started watering just thinking about the possibilities.
Thawed it, salted it, scraped the skin to remove moisture (Skyla scaled it before freezing back in April) and threw it on the grill. The fish had lost a bit of its usual deep-red coloring, but otherwise, it was all the there: dripping fat, crispy-on-the-outside-melting-on-the-inside texture and savory, crunchy skin. Exactly what we needed!
I was so far behind in work and chores from fishing all the time…I decided to go fishing. And when it comes to Columbia River spring Chinook (the highest fat-content salmon in the world) and an opportunity to hang out with my good buddy Smarty, well, there wasn’t really much of a decision. Had to go. And springtime on the Columbia means all kinds of weather, countless shades of green on the hills, and this year…fantastic fishing.
I love springers. The kids love springers. In fact, I don’t know if there’s anything else we’d rather eat. Here are a couple of nice ones ready to be butchered. We’ll scale, fillet, steak and vac seal quite a bit for the freezer, then get ready for the night’s dinner: Springer shioyaki, salted then grilled over a hot flame. Our mouths are already watering here. Probably my favorite meal of the year.
This is Skyla going to town as our head scaler, using a serrated knife to scrape the scales free. It’s more work, but completely worth it–the skin crisps up in all that springer fat and tastes delicious. I’m already dreaming of all the springer dinners we’re going to have in the coming months. Thanks, Smarty. Great times, great friends and great food.
With the unusually warm winter we’ve had so far, it already feels like it’s been spring for weeks. The plants seem to agree–fruit trees are in full blossom, daffodils blooming, grass growing–all over the Island. Crazy. And while this weather pattern is a bit disconcerting, it also raises hopes that spring Chinook will be early this year as well.
Which, of course, has me thinking and plotting, as usual, way too early. But reports are already starting to roll in. I’ve heard of two caught in the Willamette and another one from the Columbia. It’s always the way. And like every other year, I have to work to tamp down my desire to head south with springer gear ready to go.
Last year, we were thinking the same thing. Hardly any snow in the mountains, warm winter, etc. Then in late February and March, winter came back with a vengeance. We made up our entire snowpack in about six weeks. And the springer fishing, as usual, didn’t really get good until April. But that still doesn’t stop me from dreaming, mouth watering, of Columbia springers. Even here in February.
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.