ramblings of a catskill flyfisher

Smokin’ salmon

Posted 3/10/21

I cannot, in the truest sense of the English language, call this a fishing story. It can, I guess, be called a “catching” story. It does not even involve conventional fishing equipment, …

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ramblings of a catskill flyfisher

Smokin’ salmon


I cannot, in the truest sense of the English language, call this a fishing story. It can, I guess, be called a “catching” story. It does not even involve conventional fishing equipment, like a fly or spinning tackle. It does involve catching lots of fish—to be specific, kokanee salmon. And it certainly does not involve any semblance of catch and release, in terms of what we know the phrase to mean.

One of the first things I did when I arrived at the University of Montana all those many years ago, which now seems like another life, was meet my neighbors in the dorm where I resided. As it happened, the first young man I met was John Peterson. John told me he was from Browning, MT, which is the long-time home of the Blackfoot Indian Reservation. As we got to know each other, John invited me out to meet his aunt and uncle, Kate and John Chamberlain. John Peterson had an old Chevrolet, which he called a “cheevy” with his Montana accent. Kate and John lived in that part of Missoula known as the Target Range. Their home was very close to the Bitterroot River.

For some reason, after the fall semester, John Peterson left the university to pursue other interests. At the same time, I got to know Kate and John, and we became friends. In fact, I called them my family away from home. During the four-plus years I spent in Montana, Kate and John took me antelope, elk and grouse hunting. We even did a little fishing. So, it was with no surprise that, on a chilly mid-November day, John called to invite me to go to “fishing” for kokanee salmon in Flathead Lake. At the time, I had no clue what John had planned. At any rate, John picked me up on campus and we headed north on route 93 to Polson, MT. When we arrived at the lake, John unloaded two of your standard, run-of-the-mill hardware-store bamboo poles from the back of his pickup. Attached to the tip of each pole was 15 feet of what appeared to be 1/8-inch parachute shroud line. Close to the end of the line, John had attached three or four large treble hooks. I didn’t say a word.

John handed me one of the bamboo poles and I followed him to the cobbled shore of the lake. When we arrived, it was easy to see hundreds of red fish swimming along the shoreline. John told me they were kokanee salmon, and fishermen were allowed to take 25 a day, the premise for the large-bag limit being that the salmon would die after spawning. The salmon looked to be 14- to 15-inches long. John showed me the technique he used to catch the salmon. It was really simple: Just use the bamboo pole like a lever, cast (if you can call it that) the heavy line to its end and let it sink. Then wait for the school of salmon to swim over the line and lift the pole smartly. This method is used to snag as many salmon as possible in the shortest amount of time to reach the 25 fish limit. Once we had 50 salmon, the real fun began. The shore of Flathead Lake, especially on a blustery gray November day, was not the most friendly environment to clean fish in. I remember it was pretty cold with a strong onshore wind, and we had a lot of kokanees to gut. Once the fish were cleaned and stored in a big tub, we headed back to Missoula. Upon arrival, John filled two large plastic containers with water and kosher salt to make a brining solution. The cleaned salmon were added to brine overnight. The next day, John removed the salmon and hung them in an old refrigerator he used as a smoker. A small, alder wood fire nearby fed smoke into the smoker via a metal pipe. The salmon were smoked overnight by a process called the “cold smoke method.” John used this technique to cure but not cook the salmon.

After the salmon were smoked, Kate took over the operation. The skin was removed, the meat separated from the bones, then packed in sterile glass jars with olive oil. The jars were sealed, put in a canner and processed until complete. This process allowed the canned salmon to be kept indefinitely. Just before I was ready to leave and return to New York for the Christmas holiday, Kate gave me several jars to take along. The smoked kokanee was a real treat spread on toast with a little cream cheese.

I’ll never forget the adventure that John and I had on that cold, blustery November day, snagging salmon from Flathead Lake. The kokanee are gone now, as are my two dear friends. But their memory and the memory of that day seems just like yesterday, even though it was so many years ago.

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salmon, fishing


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