Once every two years, a remarkable angling event happens here in the Pacific Northwest. Pink, or “humpie” salmon make their bi-annual return to our waters, in numbers between 6 and 8 million. You heard me right, that’s million with an “illion”. It’s like a freakin’ Egyptian biblical plague of pink salmon around here. Only these plague beasts taste great smoked, and readily bite on pink lures.
Yep, their name is pink, their flesh is pink, and they have a fondness for pink lures. They’re like the Paris Hilton of sport fish.
I pass over the Spokane Street bridge on my commute to work, and every other year, during the height of the pink run, the bridge looks like the photo below. Not only are these guys are crowded on there as tightly as they can fit, they’re casting and retrieving lures, not just throwing bait out there and letting it sit. Plus, if you look, you’ll see that there are a bunch of pilings in front of them that they have to cast around. Yet somehow, they manage to not make this one big tangle of snags and crossed lines. And their catch rate is pretty damned high. At any given moment, there are several fish coming over those bridge rails.
It is quite simply, an astounding sight.
I guess what I’m saying is that all you winter steelhead fishing guys who complain about crowding and combat fishing, need to come check this out. And then shut up. 😉
I cut my teeth on salmon fishing with pinks. That first season that I fished for pink salmon here is what rekindled my love for angling, and got me hooked on salmon fishing in particular. It was like eating that first potato chip, or discovering that sex could involve another person.
That might not be a good comparison. Popping potato chips is a mindlessly easy activity, while catching pinks does require a little bit of angling savvy, and the sex with another person thing will run you like 200 bucks an hour.
…You know, I feel like I might be drifting off topic here.
Despite the fact that they run smaller than other salmon, pinks are great sport fish. They tend to run in schools, so multiple simultaneous hookups aren’t uncommon. That’s why, when you find a school, circle back and stay on them.
They can be aggressive biters. Although getting humpies to strike, and getting them in the net, are very different things. They have soft mouths, which can make getting a decent hook-set tricky. This isn’t helped by the fact they sometimes have a habit of charging at the boat after taking the bait. Also they freak out and get really scrappy once they get close, which can make them very tricky to keep on the hook.
In summation, they are just … fun.
Pink salmon don’t have the best reputation as table fare.
Commercially, you’ll see them mostly used for canned salmon. Some local fishermen write them off as only subtable for crab bait. Balderdash & poppycock I say! If those Philistines were here now, I’d slap them across the face with my lacy glove, and challenge them to a du-el.
Pink salmon actually make quite good eating. I’m not going to claim that pinks are of the same quality as king, coho, or sockeye. But handled properly, these fish are damned tasty.
The key thing you want to remember about pink salmon is that they are delicate. You don’t have the luxury of half-assing the way you handle this catch. It’s not rocket science caring for your pinks, but you need to follow the 4 step plan. Bleed, Clean, Ice, & Eat.
Bleed: You should do this with any and every fish you catch. When excess blood is allowed to coagulate within the meat, it leaves it mushy and gives it that heavy “fishy” taste. While bleeding your catch immediately is always your best course of action, for pinks it’s absolutely essential. Cut through the fish’s gills to effectively bleed it, and then let it bleed out. You can also stab in behind the gills and puncture the heart, but that is a bit trickier. I use a bleed bucket of salt water on the boat, since it’s not safe to hang them over the side here where there are plenty of seals looking for an easy meal. Let them bleed until the fish stop flopping, about 10 minutes is usually good.
Clean: As soon as your fish is bled out, gut it right away. Get all those entrails out of the body cavity, and then cut the blood line at the top of the cavity, along the spine. Use your finger to scoop out all that blood along the spine. Then give your fish a good rinse, so you’re left with just that silver skin and pink meat.
Ice: This one takes a little bit of forethought. Bring ice when you’re going fishing, bring a lot if you’re fishing for pinks. Once they are cleaned, you need to get them cold and keep them cold. Just setting them on top of a bag of ice in your cooler is not enough. You need to pack your pinks IN ICE. That means ice both above and below them; I even pack ice inside the body cavity.
Also, don’t let them soak in fresh water. Pull the plug on your cooler if needed. In the fish box on my boat, I have one of those little racks that they sell for cooling cookies, situated over the drain hole. This keeps the fish from blocking the drain, and keeps them off the bottom where water will collect. I mentioned I used salt water in my bleed bucket. That’s because fresh water will waterlog the salmon, while salt water doesn’t. I’ve even used a bucket of iced salt water to chill my pinks. Just remember if you keep adding ice to that bucket, you’ll have to add extra salt too.
Eat: In the case of many fish, if they are handled correctly, filleted and vacuum sealed, they can last for up to 2 weeks in your fridge, or months in your freezer. Pinks however, are the hot-house flower of the salmonid family. Even with proper handling, you’ve got three or four days to either prepare them (such as brining them for smoking) or to get them in your belly. Don’t bother trying to freeze pinks, they don’t hold up to it well. Grill some up for dinner after a fun day of fishing. Invite the neighbors, and share your catch while it’s fresh.
So, I’m often telling you (yes, I mean YOU) not to over-dress your fish. Keep the preparation simple, and let the flavor of the fish shine. Pinks though, are a lean, mild fish. Quite frankly, they can use a little jazzing up. If you like doing a teriyaki marinade of your salmon before grilling it? Pinks are perfect for that. Like doing the Cajun spice thing? Pink is the new blackened. (See what I did there?)
Provençal is a classic preparation from the area where France and Italy meet. It uses canned plum tomatoes, olives, garlic, and herbs to make a quick, bold sauce right in the sauté pan. It’s often used for fish that both could use a little extra pizzaz and can still hold up to added bold flavors. That sounds like pink salmon to me.
Pink Salmon Provençal
3 Tbs olive oil
1/4 tsp red chili flakes
1/4 onion, diced
6 crimini mushrooms, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 Tbs capers, lightly chopped
1/4 cup kalamata or nicoise olives, pitted & cut in half
3 each bay leaves
1 tsp chopped thyme
6 basil leaves, sliced chiffonade style
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 28 oz. can Italian plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
kosher salt & freshly ground pepper, as needed
4 portions pink salmon filets
Heat 2 Tbs of oil in a large sauté pan over med-high heat. Add the chili flakes and swirl the pan to mix them with the oil.
Add in the onions and mushrooms. Sauté for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
Mix in the garlic, olives, capers, herbs, lemon juice & wine. Continue to cook for another 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, and season with 1/2 tsp each salt & pepper.
Simmer for 5 minutes, taste and adjust seasoning if needed. While the sauce is simmering, season the salmon filets on both sides with salt & pepper.
After the final five minutes of cooking, scrape the sauce out of the pan into a bowl or other heat safe container, and set aside.
Immediately return the pan to the heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and the salmon. Sauté until the salmon is lightly cooked on one side. Turn the salmon over, pour the sauce back into the pan, over and around the salmon.
Count to 10, and then turn the stove off. Allow the residual heat to finish cooking the fish for four or five more minutes before serving.
I suggest having a green vegetable to accompany this dish, as well as a starch to help sop up every bit of that delicious sauce. I had rice with my Salmon Provençal, but pasta will work equally as well.