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Skagit River Sockeye Salmon


It feels like I’m going back to the beginning this time around.  My very first post about salmon was on sockeye from the Skagit River.   Now it’s a few years later, I’m a little more seasoned, a little more skilled, and I’ve got even more of that Clooney-esque distinguished charm going on.

So I had a confident swagger when I walked up to my usual fishing spot on the Skagit river this season and saw that …. everything was different.
Usually at this time of year, we have high water due to the mountain snow melt.   This  winter though, it was so warm that, well, we basically had no winter.   No winter equals no mountain snowpack, and that means that this year  …. Let’s contrast & compare, shall we?

Despite the lower than usual conditions, this is still a big river with plenty of flow, and the sockeye were coming.  I just needed to make some adjustments to my game if I was going to be successful.

Right away, the narrower width of the river meant that the slower flowing water right along the weed line, where I usually dropped my rig, was no longer there.  The water line was now way past the bar I used to fish on, and now the current was pushing pretty hard only a few feet from shore.  I quickly learned that I needed to switch out my 4 ounce ball weight, for a 5 or 6 ounce pyramid sinker, just to keep my gear in place.

Plunking rig with a pink winged bobber, red hook & 4 oz weight

Plunking rig with a pink winged bobber, red hook & 4 oz weight

I next learned that when the local stores are out of live sand shrimp, as has been the case with the bait shops near me this year, you can always pick up some of the cured (preserved) ones.  Just don’t count on getting bit.  I tried different colors, adding scents, even combing them with pieces of regular shrimp.  I saw zero action using those damned things.
Solution: find a store that does have live sand shrimp in stock.  Thank you Holiday Sports!

Of course I didn’t completely waste the time I spent using shitty bait.  I took great care to observe what the folks who were catching fish were using. First off, they were all using live sand shrimp, of course.  I also noticed that most of the guys who were successful had added a pink mini hoochie (squid skirt) to their rig.  So the next step was to alter my terminal tackle, thusly….

Now I had the bait, the weight, and the do-me skirt on my rig.  The only thing left was to figure out how far out to cast.  A lot of guys were casting pretty far out, right into or at least close to, the main push of the current.  Then again, a lot of guys weren’t catching anything.
I do know that when they are moving up river, sockeye like to rest their fins in slower moving water, and they’re not shy about hanging in the shallows.  Plus, as I said, I was observing.  If you want to know just where a bank fisherman caught that fish he just brought in, watch where he casts back out to. Because you can bet your ass he’s going to try to cast right back to the exact same spot.  Many of the fish that were being caught, were hooked in pretty shallow water.

Fishermen lining the bank of the low-running Skagit River

The river bank had a gentle slope where I was standing, and with the clear running water I could see the bottom up to about 15 feet from shore  The depth looked to be about thigh-high to a tall Vegas showgirl at that point.   I cast about 20 feet out, just past Celia’s (I decided to call her that) lovely gams.

All that, and a bit of patience is all it took.  When the next wave of fish moved through, a guy down below me got one, another guy a little way above me got one, and then BOOM, it was my turn.

First sockeye of the season!

Shortly after I caught this fish and got my line back out in the water, I started noticing the sun creeping higher in the sky.  As I mentioned, the water was very clear.  In case you don’t know, fish have no eye lids and their pupils don’t dilate.  Their way of avoiding light is often to go deeper.  I decided that I should reel in and cast back out a bit farther, perhaps up to about the depth of that belly button jewel Celia wears.  (Your mind has plenty of time to wander while bank fishing.)

Two things happened while I was about to reset my gear.
First off, since this was a Saturday morning, and I was listening to the Outdoor Line radio show through my ear buds.  Just as I started  reel in, Tom and John were talking about Skagit River sockeye fishing, and at that very moment happened to be commenting that many people fish too deep for them.
The second thing was that when I had my line reeled about half way back in, my lure was probably in Celia-knee deep water at that point, I got bit while retrieving.   Clear water, sun shining on it, people standing all along the bank, and I hooked a sockeye in 2 feet of water, about 10 feet from shore.
They’re shallow running fish indeed.

Making a few adjustments to my approach, including paying attention to what the successful anglers were doing, led to some success of my own.

Even though I had to leave Celia behind on the river bank,  it was a tearful but sweet farewell, those two salmon were going to make damned fine dinner company.

That rich scarlet color sockeye has is only a hint at how good it tastes.
As folks around here often say, nothing eats like sockeye.

A fish this exquisite doesn’t need much in the way of preparation to be delicious.
In fact I’m really fond of sockeye sashimi.  
However, I know some people aren’t comfortable eating it raw out of fresh water, even if it’s taken only a few miles from the salt.

That’s fine.  You be careful, I’ll be over here eating.

While raw sockeye is great, putting some flame to it is pretty fantastic too. Just be gentle with it. A sprinkle of salt & pepper, and an easy sear on the grill or in a hot sauté pan is all you need to cook your sockeye into a delicious meal.  Aim for medium rare, or medium at the very most, to preserve as much of the flavor as possible.

That’s a perfectly cooked bite of sockeye, in my charmingly humble opinion.

On one of my dinners with this catch, I started by laying a little bed of fresh herbs on a medium hot grill.  I used oregano, rosemary, and a little thyme this time around, but just about any herb you like can be used.
Set them on the grill and wait just a moment until the herbs start to smoke.  Then take your salmon that you have pre-seasoned with salt, pepper, and a touch of olive oil, and set right on those smoking herbs.  You have an option here.  If you want it with a bit more smoke and herb flavor, close the lid of the grill, and let it cook entirely without flipping it.  For a milder seasoning, leave the lid open, and turn the salmon half way through.  Just brush away any herbs stuck to the bottom of the fish, while it’s grilling on the second side.

As you see in the photo, I used my grilling basket to help keep things together, but it can be done right on the grill grates just as effectively.

That easy touch of flavor from those smoking herbs added a hint of savory complexity to the already rich tasting sockeye.

 

5 Comments

  • Bob Sturdivant July 13, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    Great blog post Chef Patrick and I am drooling over those sockeye filets! Thought I was the only one who used rosemary along with my mesquite grilled salmon and what a nice flavor it imparts on the fish!

    Reply
    • Patrick Fagan July 13, 2015 at 3:02 pm

      I completely agree. I also really like using tarragon and marjoram for salmon as well.

      Glad you like the blog post. Thanks!

      Reply
  • Doug Ochsner July 13, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    Those are just beautiful !

    Reply
  • Patrick July 13, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Thanks!

    Reply
  • Tina June 6, 2016 at 8:13 pm

    OK Patrick, taking notes here thanks for the tips. looking forward to my first season of sockeye fishing. Hoping for beginners luck. Looks like the beard might come off I see the no beard look working for sockeye. Happy fishing Happy life, Tina

    Reply

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