September is very much a transitional month at The Lake. There can be days of summer-like sunshine and warmth followed by days of cold, wind-driven rain. The Coho run is at its peak as each day hundreds and even thousands of fresh salmon enter the river. Almost all of the Chignik’s Sockeyes have come home, and by now they can be found throughout the upper river, including every major tributary and both lakes. Pinks may still be abundant (depending on the year), but the fish that remain are drab, nearly spawned out husks of their former selves. There are even a few ragged Kings still clinging to life, the females doggedly expending the last of their life energy protecting their redds. Day by day this effort becomes greater as they struggle against the current, are pushed downriver, find the strength to swim back upriver and regain their nest… only to be pushed downriver again until eventually they’ve given all they have to give. The Chignik gathers these great fish in her flow and carries them back toward the sea from where they came.
September is a time of promises realized on the Chignik, the entire valley burgeoning with life. It is a good month to look for bears on the river. Maybe the best. By now they’ve grown fat on salmon and are feeding regularly on an abundance of nearly spent Pinks, spawning Reds and an occasional fresh Silver. Cubs that survived the lean spring months have become roly-poly balls of fur and are beginning to occasionally find their own fish.
As the days begin to grow discernibly shorter, late summer and early fall sunrises linger a bit longer above the mountains surrounding the lake. I made this picture on September 4, 2020 at 7:26 AM, Gillie in the lower left foreground. (Nikon D850, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/10 @ f/8.0, 55mm, ISO 100)
Miniature three-inch bagels are perfect for a snack-size taste of Alaskan salmon lox.
The winter holidays are a time of canapés and party food, which makes this post relevant to the holiday season. For us, agreeably salty lox on a fresh homemade bagel slathered with cream cheese is just plain good food anytime of year. With a river with strong salmon runs flowing right past our home, getting the main ingredient for these sandwiches isn’t a problem. In fact, we normally get plenty of fish for our own needs as well as a few additional fish to give to elders in our village.
Making lox takes a bit of time, so there is some patience involved, but the method itself is easy. Simply pack salmon fillets in a salt-sugar-pepper mixture. Let the salt draw out the excess liquid. Turn the fillets daily for about a week. It’s a fairly magical process, in the end transforming the fillets into firm, bright orange jewels. Sliced thin, lox is perfect in scrambled eggs or atop blini as well as on the traditional bagel du jour smeared with cream cheese and sprinkled with capers. Delectable, Wild Alaskan Salmon – an edible treasure.
- 1 lb. fresh salmon fillets, skin on. The fillets need not be scaled, but do take pains to ensure that all bones are removed.
- ¼ cup coarse sea salt
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
- Rinse fish and dry thoroughly.
- Remove any pin bones in fillet with tweezers or needle nose pliers.
- Mix together salt, sugar and pepper. (This recipe works well when multiplied. Our last batch was 5 pounds of fillets.)
- Pack salt mixture around fish. Do this skin side down.
- Sandwich two pieces of fish together, flesh against flesh, skin side out.
- Pack any leftover sugar mixture onto exposed fillet.
- Wrap sandwiched pieces tightly with plastic wrap. Leave sides slightly open so liquid can drain while the salmon cures.
- I use a large plastic container with a top. Place a smaller food storage container inside the large one to create a raised place for the fish to set. This will allow the juice to drain away from the fish. A fish poacher with a bottom insert that allows drainage also works well.
- Place sandwiched salmon in container from step 8.
- Finally, you need to ensure that the fillets are tightly pressed together. This can be accomplished by placing full canning jars atop the fillets if you’re using a fish poacher. As I was using a tall plastic container, I simply placed another smaller container on top of the salmon pieces. The smaller container was just the right size so that when I put the lid on the larger container, it pressed down firmly on the fillets without squishing them. The idea is to create just enough weight or pressure to facilitate squeezing out excess moisture as the salt pulls liquid from the fish.
- Place container in refrigerator.
- For 7 days, every 24 hours pour off liquid from the bottom of the container and flip the fillet sandwiches.
- At the end of 7 days, take the salmon out of the plastic wrap and thoroughly rinse using very cold water.
- Thoroughly pat dry.
- Slice very thin and enjoy!
Store leftovers in refrigerator or wrap tightly in plastic and freeze in airtight containers.