The signs of seasonal change are easy to see along Oregon’s rivers and streams where fall colors really light up the scene. But there’s another sign hidden in the water that you can’t see: salmon are coming home! Oregon’s fall salmon fishing is big time outdoors recreation as thousands head to bays and rivers to catch big fish. That’s where we’re headed this week: where freshwater meets the ocean on a getaway to catch a salmon and then discovered new ways to cook the catch.
Some say a rosy sunrise is best way to start the day; it is gorgeous, but not nearly as much fun as hooking and landing fresh salmon from an Oregon estuary like the tidewater area of the Nehalem River near the small town of Nehalem.
Longtime fishing guide John Krauthoefer said that estuary salmon fishing tactics are simple. “Speed, presentation and keeping it in the zone where the fish are swimming. If you are going with the tide, go a bite faster to get the spinner to spin and if you are going against the current, slow down. If you feel anything, you set the hook.”
I did! I set the hook hard against a gleaming coho that immediately shot across the calm surface; it spun around and shot directly at the boat and then crashed atop the water three times. “Nice coho – and it’s a hatchery fish, too,” noted Krauthoefer, who slid the net under the gleaming but exhausted salmon. “Now lift straight up. Oh, that’s a nice fish.”
Krautheofer added that there doesn’t seem to be an end to the salmon season in sight. “I have never seen as many coho that are off the Oregon coast as there are right now! In fact, up and down the coast, the estuaries, bays and rivers are just plugged full of coho.”
Within minutes, Todd Davidson also had his hands full with a gleaming prize – a huge wild coho salmon. “That is a wild coho, gentlemen and it’s a dandy,” exclaimed our guide. “It’s as big as some of the chinook we’ve been catching this season.”
It was gorgeous coho salmon that tipped the scales at 18 pounds. Davidson was impressed and already thinking of dinner. “It’s not going to be any fresher than that piece of coho that’s going on my barbeque tonight, with a little fresh cut rosemary from the garden. It is special.”
There was some something special about Davidson’s salmon: it was a wild fish that was born in the gravel. You could tell it was wild because it had an adipose fin – a half moon shaped fin in front of the tail. Hatchery salmon have that particular fin removed when they’re babies. Wild coho salmon have made a turn around and anglers are fortunate that they can catch and keep them this season.
Nehalem River estuary anglers are allowed to keep one wild coho for the season. Anglers are also allowed to keep one additional hatchery coho or a chinook. The harvest of wild coho salmon signals a remarkable recovery that the state and federal fish and wildlife agencies began in the early 90s.
That takes us to the kitchen where life-long friends and salmon experts Steve Fick and Pete Edison enjoy cooking salmon as much as they enjoy catching them. Steve is a commercial fisherman who owns Fishhawk Fisheries and Edison a seafood buyer for Ocean Crystal Seafood. The two are also native Astorians who love salmon recipes that are different from the crowd.
Salmon recipe number one was simple, creative and different: salmon kabobs. A dozen chunks of salmon are generously covered with a lemon butter mixture and allowed to soak for a few minutes while the team cut up peppers, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, large shrimps and even pineapple chunks that were skewered onto wooden kabob sticks. The salmon skewers cooked over indirect heat on a BBQ.
“While the kabobs cook outdoors, we’ll prepare some cheeks,” said Fick with a smile. “Salmon cheeks were a popular item when Pete and I were young and working in fish plants. We grew up eating them and they are delicious. Salmon cheeks are also a delicacy that most folks don’t even know about,” added Fick.
Fick took a small, sharp knife and deftly filleted two silver dollar sized muscles from either side of the salmon’s head; just behind and above the jaw line. “These cheeks are really mild in flavor,” he added. “They do not taste fishy at all!”
Edison floured each silver dollar size filet, dipped each into an egg wash and then covered them with a soda cracker coating. The hot vegetable oil sizzled as each bite-sized piece of salmon was dropped into the frying pan. Fick noted that cooking time is only a moment because overcooked salmon “tastes like cardboard.”
Each of the salmon recipes was so easy that anyone can try them. They provide a fine way to round out a day’s adventure of catching and cooking Oregon fresh caught salmon. “I enjoy harvesting and preparing the catch – it’s rewarding for people who take it their fishing trip to that next step really. Cooking your catch provides a more enjoyable experience to the whole adventure.”
Back on the Nehalem River, our crew enjoyed great success catching several coho and a chinook. “These really are the ‘good old days,” said John Carskadon. “This is some of the best fishing that we have seen in the past 50 years and – for me – this salmon is as good as you will find anywhere on the planet.”
FRIED SALMON CHEEKS
Ingredients: salmon cheeks, flour, soda cracker crumbs, eggs, cooking oil
Preparation: Roll salmon cheeks in flour. (This helps the egg batter and cracker crumbs stick) Beat eggs. Dip cheeks in egg wash and roll in cracker crumbs. (Don’t salt – the crackers have plenty of salt.)
Cover the bottom of a frying pan with cooking oil and heat to 375°- 400°. The oil must be hot before placing the breaded cheeks into the pan or the cheeks will become soggy. Fry the cheeks until brown on both sides then place on a plate with paper towels to remove excess oil before serving.
Ingredients: wooden skewers, salmon cut into 1-1/2″ cubes, prawns, red/yellow/green peppers cut into bite size pieces, tomatoes (grape or cherry varieties work well),pineapple (cut into bite size pieces), onion (cut into bite size pieces) and other vegetables that work well include mushrooms and zucchini.
Marinate salmon and prawns for about 10 minutes. (We used a teriyaki marinade on half of the salmon chunks and butter, lemon-dill marinade on the other half.)
Combine a variety of fish and vegetables on each skewer as you prefer. Place on Weber-style grill with indirect heat until meat is done and vegetables are tender.
SPINACH SALAD, GRILLED SALMON, CHANTERELLE MUSHROOMS
Ingredients: salmon fillet cut into thin strips, baby spinach greens, chanterelle mushrooms, grape tomatoes, feta cheese, balsamic vinaigrette.
Season and grill salmon strips set aside.
Place spinach into bowl.
In skillet heat olive oil and sauté mushrooms when tender remove mushrooms from skillet and add to spinach.
While still hot, add balsamic vinaigrette to skillet heat until warm. pour over spinach mixture and toss.
Place greens on plate and top with salmon strips and serve.