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Knocking on the Barn Doors

I may not always have the best timing.  I’m writing this just after launching my boat for the season, four days after the close of winter blackmouth (salmon) season and before the seasons for other gamefish begin.  So right now I have the boat ready but nothing in the Sound I’m allowed to catch.

I’m thinking next year I’ll put her in the water a month or so earlier. Those couple of weekends with beautiful weather we’ve had recently have really made me wish the boat was already on the water.

Oh well, no sense dwelling on the past; it’s time to start thinking about upcoming fishing excursions. Less than two weeks from the day I docked the JBL (Just Blind Luck) into her slip at the marina is the start of halibut season. After all, halibut is one of the most delicious fish you’ll ever encounter.  They are worth a little preparation time.

Halibut b-o salsa

Double topped Halibut, keep reading for the recipe.

 I don’t live in the ideal area for halibut fishing; Alaska is the epicenter of great “flattie” fishing. The quality of the fishing starts to decline as you move further south, and further still as you move inland.  

Right where they have written the words “Puget Sound” on this map, is the Admiralty Inlet. South of that is the Sound proper.They have some damned fine fishing on the Washington coast. As you begin to move inland into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the halibut are a bit more spread out. Continue to move inward to the Eastern strait, the Admiralty Inlet and the North Sound, the flatties get harder to find. By the time you reach the Puget Sound proper, finding halibut really does start to become a matter of blind luck.

At least that is true by the time May rolls around. I’ve been told that halibut tend to move into the Sound in the winter and head back toward the ocean in the spring. That would mean that those of us fishing further inland are hunting for the fish that are making their way west. Don’t quote me on that last part though; I haven’t confirmed it with an official source.

Being moored in Seattle, essentially the central Sound, I have some traveling to do if I want to have any reasonable chance to but a halibut in my boat. Last year was my first season fishing for halibut. We focussed most of our efforts on the Admiralty Inlet, which with decent water conditions is about a 45 minute ride. We did have one day that was incredibly flat and calm all over the area; seriously it was almost creepy, mill pond calm. My buddy Gray and I took her all the way out into the Strait in just over an hour. To date that remains the farthest I’ve taken JBL from home by water.

Since halibut season is still two weeks away, I’ll have to refer to the events of last season in order to give you an idea of what I am preparing for.

An average sized flounder, rather than a door mat. Still, there is something about this photo I like.

Wait, didn’t I say something earlier about not dwelling on the past? Hey, if you are going to follow this blog, you better learn now that it’s probably not a good idea to listen to me. 😉

So let’s back up. For those of you who are unfamiliar, halibut are flat fish, much like flounder, sole and fluke. The main difference being, halibut can grow much, MUCH bigger than the other species. Growing up flounder fishing on the East coast, our hope was to catch a “door mat” flounder. That would be one about 15 pounds or so.  Hallibut though can grow to hundreds of pounds and the big boys are known as “barn doors”.

 

Seriously … how sick is that?

Giants like that are generally found out in the ocean and up in Alaska in particular of course, but we do get some damned big ones here further inland sometimes as well. At a halibut seminar I attended last week, one of the speakers said that while we have fewer of the fish in the Northern Sound and Eastern Straits, we have a higher percentage of the mid size (30 – 80 lb) fish than the “chicken” halibut (15 – 30 lbers) that crowd some of the busier fisheries. I’m not exactly sure how accurate that is, but it’s nice to think we get a little quality in exchange for what we lack in quantity.

I don’t mean to sound all doom and gloom about the prospects of success here. Fishermen pull a good number of flatties out of the North Sound & Eastern Strait. It is a game of patience and determination though. I once heard that if the whole boat catches one halibut, you’ve had a good day. I’ve seen plenty of reports of guys coming in with a couple fish on their boat. Because the legal limit is only one fish per angler, that could easily mean they got their limit. It’s also pretty damned common to come home from a day of halibut fishing with only a sunburned nose and some empty beer cans to show for your time on the water.

landing a halibut is a team effort

Last year, being our first, was a learning experience for me and our little band of hooligans. Over the 13 days of the 2011 season … yep, the season is that short here, we fished for halibut about 7 days. Weather & work kept us from trying more than that. In that time, we caught one.

I’m not going to say just one, because I’m proud of us for that. We were noobs after all. I also say we caught that fish, because landing a halibut is a team effort. So while it did bite on my line and I brought it up, that’s not the hardest part. Halibut tend to go completely ape shit when they hit the surface, and that’s where 90% are lost, right at the boat.  So just when things got the hairiest, I moved back and let the other guys on the boat, with the gaff & the oversized net, move in and and put her on the deck.

Here I am holding the fruit of our effort. In retrospect, I should've gotten a picture of all of us with this fish, but I was too giddy with the moment to think clearly, or at least think of others. Yeah, I can be kind of a narcissist asshole at times. It's all part of my charm. :)

Here I am holding the fruit of our effort. In retrospect, I should’ve gotten a picture of all of us with this fish, but I was too giddy with the moment to think clearly, or at least think of others. Yeah, I can be kind of a narcissist asshole at times. It’s all part of my charm. 🙂

It was 35 lbs, a decent, but not close to large, halibut. But look at that big, stupid grin on my face. I couldn’t wipe that away for three days. Catching that one fish made the other six days of no action all worth it. Although, to be clear, those other six days constituted hanging out on the water with my buddies, drinking beer. It wasn’t exactly hard labor.

Let’s recap: I’m in an area that has spotty halibut fishing at best. I have to travel a good distance from my marina to get to the closest fishing grounds. We are allowed to fish for them essentially three days a week for one month of the year only; and that month is often likely to kick up weather that will keep pussies like me off the water for a portion of those days.

So why do it? Why put in the time and effort to learn the techniques, and the money to buy the specialized equipment, for what looks on paper to be at short window of small opportunity?

Well, part of it is that many of us fishermen are a little bit obsessive and love the challenge. Also, there is the potential of catching the largest game fish this area has to offer, and let’s not forget the point I made before about the pleasure of just being out on the boat with a line in the water.

It is quite simply, a delicacy.

The big reason though, at least for me, is the taste. Halibut might be the most delicious fish you are ever going to taste, IMHO. The meat is white and firm with a flavor that is rich but not “fishy”. It is quite simply, a delicacy.

Since we have a little time yet before the season starts, let’s move the focus to the kitchen right now. I’ll post again soon about rigs and techniques.  It’s a short season after all, and I want to get a few posts in about this fish, so I can throw a few recipes in your direction.

I’m going to start you off with a double topped recipe that I once posted on another site, but I love so much that I really must share it here. Halibut’s flavor is so light and delicious; the last thing I want to do is cover-up its delicate flavor. Still I wanted to have some fun and add a little complexity to the dish.

Nice, clean citrus flavors really complement halibut without overpowering it. I got my hands on some beautiful blood oranges and couldn’t resist making a salsa out of them.
However I also wanted to add a little decadent richness, so I layered in a charred onion butter sauce.
The result was a fun mixture of flavors & textures that still allowed the halibut to be the star of the show.

Pan Seared Halibut with Charred Onion Buerre Blanc & Blood Orange Salsa

 

Halibut b-o salsa-2Salsa

3 medium blood oranges, cut into clean segments,
½ of one mango, peeled and sliced into small strips
¼ red onion, sliced thinly
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded & finely chopped
pinch of salt
1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

Combine all the ingredients for the salsa in a small mixing bowl. You should also squeeze in any excess juice from the oranges membrane. Allow this to rest for at least 20 minutes.
The mango is optional but it adds a degree of hardiness to the salsa that I really like. It may look in the photos like there are peppers on top as well, that’s because the mango soaks up the red color from the blood orange juice.

Charred Onion Buerre Blanc

1 cup dry white wine
juice & zest of 1 lemon
2 Tbsp heavy cream
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
½ medium onion, charred over flame or grill, diced
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine the white wine and lemon juice in a non-reactive saucepan over med-high heat and reduce to 2 tablespoons. Watch it carefully, especially as the liquid gets very low, as it can go dry and scorch very quickly.
Add the cream to the reduction. Reduce it by half, then turn the heat to very low. Add the butter, one cube at a time, shaking the pan, adding more butter as the previous one melts. Continue adding butter into the reduction until the mixture is fully emulsified and has reached a rich sauce consistency. Mix in the diced onion and season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat but keep warm until ready to serve.

The Fish & the Finish

4 portions of cut halibut filet
2 Tbsp canola or light olive oil
pinch of salt & pepper

Dab any excess moisture off the outside of the halibut fillets with a paper towel and season them with the salt and pepper.
Heat a heavy bottomed pan, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. Add in the oil and allow it to heat up, but do not let it get so hot it starts to smoke.
Cook the halibut in the pan so that it’s nicely seared on the outside and cooked to your preference within.

Serve the halibut topped with a couple spoonfuls of butter sauce and a liberal portion of the salsa.
As you can see from the picture above, I had mine with a little basmati rice pilaf; steam basmati rice with sauteed bell peppers and shiitake mushrooms.

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