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.
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?