Smelt Smoked or Fried (Eulachon, Hooligan or Candlefish)

hooligans in cooler_n

Eulachon are packed with oil when they begin their spawning run – roughly 15% of their body weight. Dried, they can be lit and will burn like a candle, which is why early explorers in North American called them candlefish. The term eulachon is derived from the Chinook language. 

When the hooligan are making their spring-time run in the Pacific Northwest, dip-netters from Oregon to Alaska gather along the banks of their natal streams and rivers to scoop up a few pounds for the pan and the smoker. An anadromous species, these members of Osmeridae (the smelt family) spend most of their lives in the ocean and ascend the rivers of their birth to spawn and die. At this time, they don’t feed, so dip-netting is the best way to harvest them.

hooligan krystin b_n

Our friend Krystin scoops up a netful of hooligan from a small stream near Seward. 

Fiddlehead ferns, fireweed shoots or asparagus lightly sautéed in olive oil and finished with a squirt of lemon make a fitting accompaniment for a meal of freshly caught smelt. One of our favorite cooking methods for the fish themselves is to roll them in cornmeal, wrap them in bacon, fry them whole and serve them wrapped in a crisp leaf of Romain lettuce – a lettuce-smelt taco. (See Bacon-Wrapped Smelts for more on this recipe.)

hooligan by hand_n

Right: When the fish are in, it can be possible to catch them by hand. It took Krystin a few minutes to grab these fish one at a time.

Another great way to enjoy hooligans is to smoke them, and that’s the way our friends Bixler and Krystin recently prepared them. They use a commercially prepared dry rub, but making your own is easy enough. Typical dry rubs feature about one cup of non-iodized salt to four cups of brown sugar. Garlic, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and allspice are among seasonings commonly added to give brines more flavor. Simply pack the fish in the brine in a glass baking dish, place in the fridge for a day or so, rinse the fish, pat the fish dry with paper towels and smoke for about eight hours. (See Alaska Fast Food: Smoked Hooligans at Alaskagraphy.)

The bones of cooked or smoked smelt are soft, and many people (including us) eat them whole from head to tail. Gravid females (those with ripe roe) are our favorites.

hooligan zaru soba_n

Zaru soba – cold buckwheat noodles – is a perfect dish for the hot weather we’ve been having lately. Topped with a smoked smelt from the refrigerator, this dish can be garnished with salmon roe, nori or served as is. You can used a store-bought noodle dipping sauce or make your own with a little rice vinegar, a little soy sauce, a little brown sugar, ice-cold water and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

Whole Sheefish (or any fish) Poached in Foil

sheefish whole poached in foil_n

A large fish poached and served whole makes for a dramatic presentation and a first-class dining experience. You don’t need a fancy fish poacher to pull this off. Aluminum foil works beautifully in the galley, on the grill, over a campfire, or in the kitchen. Here are the basics. 

Sheefish whole poach_n

This past winter, we’ve been dining on sheefish (inconnu) in the six-to-eight-pound class. Measuring 25 – 30 inches, these fish of the far north are just small enough to fit into our oven and serve whole. Because sheefish is bony and not easily filleted, they are well-suited to this cooking method; when served, the meat comes easily off the bones. With firm white meat in large, sweet, flakey chunks, sheefish are comparable to striped bass, European seabass, Japanese seabass (suzuki) and similar fish. Here in Alaska, foil poaching works beautifully with salmon, rockfish, char and small halibut.

Poaching and steaming recipes need not be complicated. Although we generally start with a court bouillon or dashi and add Chardonnay when we have it, equal parts of water and Chardonnay alone make a perfectly acceptable basic poaching stock. No wine on hand? A little water – enough to keep the fish bathed in steam – is sufficient. Anything else is a matter of taste. We’ve found it difficult to improve on a combination of sea salt, freshly cracked pepper, lemon, butter and bacon. Olive oil makes a good substitution for butter and bacon.

One of the beautiful things about this recipe is that the ingredients can be prepared beforehand so that they’re ready for a shore lunch or camp dinner to celebrate a special catch.

Incidentally, wakame (dried kelp) and dried bonito flakes are an ideal base for fish stock for campers and sailors. These ingredients are light, easy to store, and last indefinitely. This dashi-style stock can be enhanced with salt, soy sauce, white wine, sherry or sake.sheefish

See more of Detlef Buettner’s beautiful art at: http://home.gci.net/~lifesize.fish/salmonids.htm

Poached fish is an excellent meal to serve with freshly baked French bread or sourdough bread. We and our guests enjoyed the above sheefish served on saffron rice cooked in a clam juice broth, spooning the poaching broth onto our rice and fish.

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole fish, scaled, gutted, gilled, rinsed off and patted dry.
  • aluminum foil sufficient to entirely wrap around the fish. We double wrap to prevent leaking.
  • poaching/steaming liquid – approximately 1/3 cup per pound of fish. (About 2 1/2 cups for an 8-pound fish.) See below for easy poaching liquid recipe.
  • 1 tbsp butter per pound of fish. (An 8-pound fish takes 1 stick of butter.)
  • very thin slices of lemon to cover one side of fish
  • strips of bacon to cover one side of fish. (about 5 strips for an 8-pound fish)
  • lemon juice to rinse stomach cavity – approximately 2 tbsp for an 8-pound fish
  • sea salt and freshly cracked pepper to rub into cavity and both sides of fish – approximately 2 – 3 tbsp sea salt for an 8-pound fish

Directions:

  1. Place large baking sheet in oven and preheat to 450 °F.
  2. Arrange aluminum foil on flat surface. Thoroughly coat foil with butter where fish will be placed.
  3. Rub lemon juice into fish’s stomach cavity. 
  4. Use a very sharp knife to make shallow diagonal slashes spaced about 1 inch apart from the head of the fish to the tail. Do this on both sides.
  5. Rub salt and pepper mixture onto both sides of fish and into cavity.
  6. Place fish onto buttered foil.
  7. Rub butter into fish’s cavity. Rub remaining butter on top side of fish.
  8. Arrange lemon slices on top side of fish.
  9. Arrange bacon slices atop fish.
  10. Pour poaching liquid along the sides of fish, taking care not to rinse the off the top of the fish.
  11. Close foil around fish and place on baking sheet (or on grill, etc.) Cook until a few dorsal fin rays can be easily pulled from fish. Total time will be approximately 5 – 6 minutes per pound. An 8-pound fish will cook for 40 minutes.
  12. Note: We like to remove the bacon when the fish is finished cooking, crisp it up in a pan, and return the bacon to the top of the fish prior to serving. The bacon drippings can be drizzled atop the fish as well.

Poaching Liquid Recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups water
  • 5 inch square of wakame (dried kelp – available in Asian grocers.)
  • 5 grams (0.17 ounces) dried bonito flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt (or 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce)
  • 1 tbsp miso paste (optional)
  • Optional: replace 1/2 cup water with white wine or sake

Directions:

  1. Place water in pan and heat over high heat. Add wakame and salt, stir occasionally and continue heating but do not boil.
  2. When Wakame is soft, add bonito flakes. Cook briefly in steaming water and stir gently. Do not boil.
  3. Pour mixture through wire strainer into pan or bowl.
  4. If desired, return strained soup to low heat and stir in miso paste till dissolved.

Overfishing and the Non-Solution of Aquaculture

This four-minute video presents the clearest, most accurate explanation of issues close to our hearts we’ve found: overfishing and the peril of aquaculture. We are emptying our seas at an unsustainable rate. But there are real solutions at hand:

  • Our governments need to follow science-based harvest recommendations.
  • Understand why aquaculture (fish farming) merely robs Peter to pay Paul, and for most species is not a solution.
  • Purchase local, wild fish whenever and wherever possible – even if it costs more.
  • Write a note to the FDA (click here) urging them to follow the American Fisheries Society’s names for fish species so that restaurants and retailers have to honestly tell consumers what we are purchasing.
  • Use your dollars to show commercial fishermen that you are willing to pay for responsibly harvested fish as opposed to farmed fish and fish harvested by nonselective, rapacious factory ship fishing.
  • Become educated and talk with your friends.
  • Forward or share this blog post/video.
  • Join Trout Unlimited or another conservation group that works to protect fish habitat. (Check Charity Navigator to ensure that the organization you choose spends its dollars responsibly.)
  • Learn to fish. A single person selectively targeting fish from local waters for personal/family consumption is still the most ecologically sustainable method of fish harvest.

Thanks for reading. Jack & Barbra

Alaska’s Permanent Fund and Trout Unlimited

Daughter Maia works a pool in the canyon country of Oregon’s Deschutes River.

This past summer, we fell in love with the film Away We Go in which Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) and Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) find themselves in the enviable, daunting and sometimes scary position of realizing that, although they are not wealthy, they can live virtually anywhere they choose to. Their story unfolds as a touching, insightful comedy as they criss-cross North America searching for just the right place.

Verona: I can do my job from anywhere. And all you need’s a phone, right?

Burt: Well, we don’t want to go back to Chicago, do we?

Verona: No, we did Chicago.

Burt: I used to picture myself in Alaska. God, I love that landscape.

Verona: Alaska?

Burt: Yeah.

Verona: You’ve never mentioned Alaska.

Burt: Wow, they pay people to live in Alaska.

Burt’s line about people being paid to live in this great state gets laughs from audiences, although for different reasons depending on who the audience is. While it’s not true that people are paid to live here, there is something called the Permanent Fund. Without getting into the complexities, Alaska’s Permanent Fund is a constitutional provision established in 1976 that, essentially, taps oil revenues allowing the state government to pay an annual check to every Alaskan resident once they’ve lived here one fiscal year. The amount of the check varies from year to year. The current five-year average is $1,341. This year’s payout was lower, but still appreciable at $878.

That’s where Trout Unlimited comes in.

Barbra and I feel a deep commitment to helping to conserve, protect and restore America’s cold water resources. This commitment flows naturally from our love of salmon and trout and the beautiful and often pristine environs they inhabit and depend upon. Protecting our cold water resources, though, is about more than protecting fish. Trout Unlimited has worked in concert with others to bring down dams that are no longer useful – thus restoring countless miles of free flowing rivers and streams. They work with vineyard owners and other farmers to help ensure water-wise land use. And all across the landscape, TU has, for decades, been instrumental in ensuring that mining, timbering and other resource extraction be carried out with sensible respect for its impact on rivers, streams and estuaries when sensible respect is possible, and that extractive industries be turned away when they can’t conduct their business without destroying watersheds.

At present, TU is in the midst of several critical battles. One of them involves a multi-national mining proposal that threatens the world’s greatest salmon estuary, Bristol Bay. The proposed Pebble Mine could wipe out runs that number into the millions of salmon, as well as fishing jobs and subsistence fishing that generations upon generations of Alaskans (and salmon consumers throughout the world) have depended on. TU is also on the vanguard in fighting against irresponsible extraction of natural gas locked underground in Marcellus Shale. The extraction requires fracking, and it is posing a major risk to the streams and rivers I cut my teeth on as a young angler in Western Pennsylvania.

Again, this isn’t just about trout and salmon. We humans, too, drink the water, grow our farms and forests with it, admire its beauty, and are responsible for passing down a legacy of clean water to future generations.

And so, presented with money that is essentially a gift from our adopted state, the choice on how to spend it was easy. This year, Barbra and I will become lifetime members of Trout Unlimited.

After vetting dozens of organizations, we came to feel that in TU, our contributions will support the causes closest to our hearts. Not just for us, but for generations to come.

To read more about TU’s efforts, click on the following links:

Trout Unlimited’s Home Page

Marcellus Shale Project

Bristol Bay

Maia on a seldom-fished hike-in lake raptly watching her fly line for a twitch. 

The Gentleman Angler

Before we moved to Alaska, we’d never seen fog flowing down mountains. I’m sure it happens elsewhere… This was one of those days of sunshine and patchy fog. Fog encircling the horizon. Fog pouring like a river through mountain gaps on Resurrection Bay. 

I like foggy days. Fog means you can start late and not miss the bite. When it’s foggy, sometimes, big things happen late in the day.

By the time Barbra and I got our C-Dory fueled up and heading out into the bay, it was 10:30 A.M. Most of the fleet – both the charters and recreational boats – had long since left the docks. There was a time when I would have been with them – when I had to be on the water early. Dawn. Before dawn. Early early. Trout streams in Pennsylvania, striper rivers in South Carolina, sea bass beaches in Japan….

Most days, the early morning bite is the best.

Fog changes that.

Laid out on the dock are six silver salmon, eight rockfish, a couple of greenling, three small halibut, and a 35-pound lingcod. A couple of the salmon and the halibut didn’t make it into this photo. All of the fish were filleted, vacuum-packed and flash-frozen, ready to travel with us to Point Hope. I asked Barbra to name her favorite on the dinner table. “The variety,” she answered, without missing a beat. We didn’t get up early for these fish, and we didn’t run far.

We could get up earlier. We could run further. We could catch more fish and larger fish.

We know that.

At some point in my life, numbers and size stopped mattering so much. I still like to fish. But most of the time, most days, the fish that interest me the most are the ones that are still biting after I’ve had a good night’s sleep, breakfast, a leisurely mug of coffee (not in a to-go mug, but in my favorite mug at my breakfast table) and have read the news.

“We’re gentleman anglers,” my older friend and mentor Bill Kodrich explained to me. Forty years ago, we were in a cafe, me with a slice of blueberry pie, Bill with a slice of apple pie and a cup of coffee. It was about ten in the morning. We were headed for Spring Creek. I’d never been. I was eager to go. I thought we should have been there four hours ago.

“We don’t need to hurry,” Bill said with a characteristic smile. “There’ll still be trout in the stream when we get there.”

I get it now.

Silvers and Pinks (And Otters)!

This curious fellow swam right up to our C-Dory, Gillie, to watch me rinse off a salmon Barbra had just caught.

Alaska. Every trip out on the water is a reminder that you could live here several lifetimes and never see it all. While sea otters are fairly common along the southern and central Alaskan coastline, we’ve never have one swim up to the boat. (Although, there were a trio that used to follow us as we walked the docks in Cordova.) This guy seemed genuinely curious – and maybe hopeful of a handout – as I rinsed off a Coho before putting it in the fish box on a recent excursion to Rugged Island in Resurrection Bay, near Seward. Meanwhile, floating on her back with a pup on her stomach, a mother otter watched us a little more guardedly and from a distance.

Fishing partner Bixler McClure got this shot of the otter coming over to investigate the boat. 

On any given sailing or boating trip out on the bay, you’re likely to encounter harbor porpoises, Dall porpoises, Orcas, whales, eagles, thousands of sea birds, leaping salmon, seals, sea lions and every once in a while you might spot the fin of a seven-foot salmon shark (they look very much like small great white sharks) cutting through the water. Bears come down to the beaches, and on rare occasions a wolverine might be glimpsed.

And, of course, there are the fish. Resurrection Bay lies between green-shouldered, snow-capped mountains – a dramatic backdrop. It extends over 10 miles before meeting the Alaska Gulf, and on many days the waters are nearly glass smooth, rippled only by a gentle breeze. On days such as these, the fishing is truly pleasant.
When the silvers (Coho salmon) show up – usually the run is in full swing by mid-July – the fishing is excellent, with six-salmon limits the norm. Skilled (or lucky) anglers often mix in a king or two, and after you’ve got salmon in the fish box you can switch tactics and target rockfish and halibut. There are bigger rockfish and halibut out in the Gulf – and more of them -, but if you stay with it you can find fish in the bay and you don’t have to deal with a long run.
The custom here is to take the fish out of your fish box and load them into a dock cart so you can wheel them up to one of the fish cleaning stations. Once we’ve filleted our fish, we take them to J-Dock to be vacuum packed and flash frozen. Fish cared for this way taste great even a year or more later.
 Below: Barbra got this watery photo of the otter swimming around Gillie.
Below: Three limits of salmon and a couple of rockfish, laid out, rinsed off and ready to take up to the cleaning station. This winter in Point Hope, every meal these fish provide will be a memory of our summer in Seward. These are the good old days.

Getting Wasted on Cheap Vodka

“Higher! Lift it higher!” Barbra strains to hoist a lingcod of about 30 pounds that fell to a jig in 100 feet of water. 

Six-thirty AM and virtually no wind. Gaff – check. Rods rigged and ready – check. Plenty of knife jigs, lead-heads, twister tails – check. A fifth of cheap vodka in a plastic bottle…

Check.

It was our friend Jerry’s last day in Seward, and he had just enough time for a quick out-and-back morning trip. We were looking for his first-ever halibut, along with whatever else might be interested in our jigs.

With Barbra at the helm of our C-Dory, cruising between 15 and 20 knots over calm seas it took us about an hour to get to a place we knew would offer a chance to pick up halibut without running all the way out into the Gulf of Alaska.

Sea birds, vast shoals of herring, porpoises, seals and off in the distance the misty spout of a whale – all against a dramatic Alaskan background of green-sloped, snow-shouldered mountains, glaciers and  rugged, rocky – make any trip out onto the bay a good one.

We got a few fish, too. Jerry nailed his first-ever halibut (not to mention a 50-pound-class lingcod – also a first), Barbra got her hands on her first 30-pound lingcod, and I hooked another nice halibut. In three hours of fishing, we caught maybe half-a-dozen lings, the halibut, Pacific cod, greenling, a brilliantly colored sculpin and over a dozen assorted rockfish including blacks, yelloweye, quillbacks, and a beautifully marked tiger.

We kept a yelloweye, the tiger (photo on the left), and a halibut.

Since the lings have to be released (the season doesn’t open till July 1, and it is permanently closed within Resurrection Bay), the only one we pulled out of the water for a quick photo was Barbra’s 30-pounder.

But she brought an even larger fish to the boat that day, and the way she caught it was a first for us – one that gave new meaning to the exclamation “Color!” fishermen often call out when they get the first glimpse of a fish coming up from the depths.

Laid across the mouth of one of the most beautifully marked lings we’ve ever seen – a 40 pounder with striking, amber-brown spots – was a bright orange yelloweye rockfish! The jig hook was planted firmly in the yelloweye’s mouth, but had no purchase on the lingcod. The ling’s jaws were simply clamped down on its meal – and  it was giving every bit as good of a fight  as if it had been securely hooked.

We released several nice black rockfish, such as this one Jerry caught.

I knew, based on reading about events like this, that as long as we didn’t raise the ling’s head above water, he’d continue to hold onto the rockfish like a dog playing tug-of-war with a rope. So what did I do? I grabbed Barbra’s leader and lifted the ling’s head above water, causing it to instantly drop the yelloweye and sink back into the depths. Oops…

We thus missed a chance for a really great photo – the bright orange of the yelloweye lying lengthwise across the jaws of a massive lingcod. Ahh… next time!

Interestingly enough, the yelloweye didn’t look particularly damaged. When we released it, it scurried straight for the bottom.

And the vodka?

Jerry and I had read about fishermen using cheap booze – not a .22 rifle, not a .410 shotgun, not a billy – cheap booze to subdue fish. Halibut are notorious for going crazy once they’re on the deck of a boat. They’ve been known to bust up tackle, wreck coolers and even injure their captors. But with a shot or two of alcohol on their gills…

When Jerry got his fish up on the surface, I gaffed it right behind the cheek and pulled its head up out of water. As soon as the fish opened its mouth, Jerry poured a couple shots of vodka down its hatch. The affect was amazing. The fish slumped like an overserved patron passing out on a bar, and we slid it over the gunwale without a struggle . Once we had it on the deck of the C-Dory, we splashed its gills with another shot of vodka for good measure and then hung it over the side of the boat to bleed it out.

Easiest time of it I’ve ever had with a halibut.

Even the little fish are cool: Barbra with a brilliantly marked Pacific sculpin that tried to eat a jig nearly as large as itself.