Smoke–Cure Those Extra Fish
“We couldn’t eat all the fish we could legally catch. We wanted to take some home.” Here’s how an especially lucky fishing party smokes some of their catch–rainbow and grayling as well as salmon–to provide a short–term cure that would preserve the fish long enough to transport it to a freezer.
All we really wanted was some restful roaming and perhaps a few fresh fish that we hoped to catch just before the bush plane returned in a week. The fish did not understand the plan.
We arrived in bright sunshine, saluted that beautiful view of Denali (Mount McKinley) that can be seen from the Petersville mining area, and then greeted our host and hostess. They were summering in a former roadhouse, getting away from the civilization of the lower Susitna Valley.
One day, exploring, we came to a huge boulder jutting into the cloudy, green stream of rippling, white water. The flat–topped rock created an eddy in the river that looked like a perfect salmon rest.
My equipment included salmon eggs, rod, reel, and an armed escort. Into the middle of the eddy went eggs, hook, line and sinker. As I began to retrieve the bait, there was a jerk. Automatically I let out a little more line to keep from setting the hook in what had to be a a snag. But suddenly it wasn’t a snag. It felt like a salmon.
It took about three minutes of reel in, slack, and play before the silver tail broke water. After that it was a fight to exhaustion for each of us because the only way to land the fish was to bring him to water’s edge where he could be hand–hauled from the stream by the gills.
The next plunk into the eddy brought in a rainbow trout about 12 inches (30 cm) long. Next I hooked a grayling. Each time the hook went into the water it was received by a succession of grayling, rainbow trout and silver salmon. This wasn’t a fishing hole, it was an aquatic pantry!
We had plenty of groceries. We didn’t expect a plane to pick us up for several days. We couldn’t eat all the fish we could legally catch. We wanted to take some home. Three-fourths of our group did not really care for fresh fish, although they admitted that pickled fish, smoked fish, or salt fish were another matter.
By the end of the day we hatched the idea of smoking our catch. A fire bed was dug and forked stakes driven into the ground to support, cross members strung with fish. Firewood was alder, and leafy branches were piled over the entirety to keep the smoke enclosed.
The salmon were filleted and the backbone removed to within 2 inches (5 cm0 of the tail. We cut them across the skin depth every 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm), sprinkled them with table salt, leaving it on overnight to help toughen the skin and meat.
Rainbow trout and grayling were eviscerated but otherwise left intact, just as you would buy them for fancy prices from gourmet mail order houses.
The fire was started, fish were strung on sticks and placed on stakes. The blaze was damped, and the alder branches heaped around. A plastic sheet spread over the mound helped hold the smoke within our primitive fish preserver.
All was well as long as the fire received continual attention. Fresh wood and water were supplied as necessary to keep the flames and heat down. There was no thought of complete curing; the object was to smoke–dry and seal the outer flesh in order to preserve the catch until it could be returned to the city and the freezer.
The project was the most relaxing two days in memory. I probably remember it that way because mine was only number two position–I took orders. The work had a rhythm. It was hunker, think and read, peek into the alder mound, add wood, splash in water, hunker and think or read. It was a peaceful time.
The experience for that is really what it was, kept the fish from spoiling, and the alder smoke gave it an added flavor. The camp fire smoker was a delicious success. In other, more difficult circumstances, such a technique could be an important survival aid.
HOW TO SMOKE CURE FISH
- Cut heads off and gut fish as usual.
- Split large fish by cutting along either side of the backbone and removing it, so that the fish will lie. Small fish leave whole-dressed.
- Score split fish lengthwise from head to tail, cutting gashes 1/4 inch deep (6 mm) and about 1 inch (2.5 cm) apart.
- Wash fish thoroughly and wipe dry.
- Rub inside and outside with a mixture of salt and a little pepper for flavor. Use 1 pound (456 g) salt and 1 ounce (28 g) pepper.
- Stove fish overnight in a cool place.
- Next morning, rinse thoroughly. Spread fish open using several thin, flat sticks with pointed ends that will pierce the skin. Hang the fish in the breeze about three hours or until a thin surface glaze forms.
- Meanwhile, dig a shallow pit about 3 feet (0.9 m) wide and prepare a bed of red coals, using hardwood fuel such as birch, aspen or alder. Gathering enough forked stakes about 4 or 5 (1.2 to 1.5 m) feet tall to serve as props for the fish. Push the unforked end into the ground so that the fork hangs over the fire at an angle. Place stakes far enough apart to keep fish from touching.
- Around the stakes, make a longer tripod of poles and cover this with a thick layer of green boughs and grass. Leave a hole near the ground.
- Hang the fish on the stakes. Put green wood on the coals to build up a dense smoke and cover the hole. From time to time add fresh green wood to the fire. Smoke fish 6 to 18 hours, depending on size and degree of smoking desired. Then cool it, wrap it and store it in a cool, dry place. It should keep in good condition two to four weeks.
Cited From: Ruth D. Edmondson, “First Catch A Salmon.” Alaska Magazine, September 1971.
Also cited from: The Fisherman Returns, University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, Fairbanks, AK. Publication P-27 (revised) July 1980.