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Surprisingly, my first salmon post is about Sockeye.

I should probably warn you now to prepare for a fair amount of salmon talk on here over the next couple months. King season has just opened up and there are some resident coho salmon around be had as well. Then, right around the time we have to stop keeping kings, the larger, migratory coho arrive from the ocean.
Essentially, the next two months is the time of year many of us local anglers live for.

For those of you that don’t know, out here in the Pacific Northwest salmon is the undisputed king of sport fish. Hell, the salmon is practically the patron saint of this part of the country.  They can get quite large, they are aggressive eaters, powerful fighters, and an absolutely delicious to eat. As a sport angler it’s hard to ask for more than that.  

The thing is, before I moved out here I never really like salmon all that much. The simple fact the matter is that the Atlantic salmon just doesn’t hold a candle the salmon we have in this part of the country. The flavor isn’t as good and texture isn’t as nice.  Pacific Northwest salmon though, are literally a whole different animal. The salmon out here are delicious eating fish, some of the varieties truly can be considered a local delicacy. Well before I started fishing here in the Seattle area I became familiar with local salmon from working as a restaurant chef. Just about every high-end restaurant in the area serves salmon, at least during the season.  A Seattle restaurant that doesn’t offer salmon on its menu is like a Maine restaurant that doesn’t serve lobster.

sockeye filet-4

Filets of my first sockeye salmon, no color enhancement done, they were really that vibrant red.

Opinions vary as to which is the best tasting type of salmon.  Chinook (king) have a high fat content and thick, firm filets that give them an almost buttery texture and makes them great for grilling.  Coho are a little less oily and have a pleasantly mild, sweeter flavor.  However, I bet if you were to take a poll of local seafood aficionados, they would vote sockeye as the most favored variety of salmon.

Sockeye have an even higher fat content than chinook and a brilliant red flesh that is reportedly caused by a lot of shellfish in their diet.   Their taste is rich, complex and just …. damned good.
Of course any discussion about which is the better tasting among those three types of salmon is just splitting hairs, they are all great.

The unfortunate thing about sockeye is that we don’t have much local opportunity to fish for them around here. There is a sockeye run that literally goes right through the middle of Seattle and into Lake Washington, but the return numbers of salmon in that run haven’t been high enough in recent years to allow for a sport fishing season.  So far this season the return numbers of sockeye in that run have been much higher than expected and we all have our fingers crossed that we’ll have a Lake Washington season this year.
It’s not all doom and gloom though.  This year for the first time ever, the WDFW opened a sockeye fishery on the Skagit river, which is about an hour’s drive north of Seattle.  Of course I had to head up there and try it out.  While I’ve caught loads of king, coho and pink salmon, I had never caught a sockeye before and I wanted to put that notch on my rod handle.  Plus the lure of cooking and eating what is considered by many to be the best tasting type of salmon, shortly after I pulled it out of the water, was too strong to resist.

Once again I was facing a new type of fishing for me and it was necessary for me to school myself on what to do.  There was a bit of uncertainty around this from the locals, since the was a first time opener on this river. However, since “plunking” is a pretty standard way to fish from the bank in a large, swift river like the Skagit, that’s what most people were trying.

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

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

Plunking involves attaching a three-way swivel to your line, one arm of the swivel is attached to a short piece of line, 6 – 8 inches, then to a weight.  Your bait/lure is attached to the third arm of the swivel by a long piece of leader.  I was using a 36 inch leader.  Your bait should be buoyant so it floats up a bit off the bottom and also have some action as it flutters in the current.  In this case I was using a winged bobber and a couple of beads (so the bobber could spin easily) above my hook that was baited with a piece of sand shrimp tail.  I also added some shrimp flavored smelly jelly to my gear to give it a stronger scent trail.
Special thanks to the boys at The Outdoor Line and Ted’s Sports Center for the advice on how to rig this all up.

Skagit 1

The view from my chair on the banks of the Skagit River

Then all the need be done is to cast out into a not too swift part of the river (word is that sockeye prefer to avoid strong current when possible) put your rod in a holder, tighten the line up, kick back in your folding chair and enjoy a cold one while you watch your rod tip.  I ended up having a number of cold ones, because there was a bit of waiting involved.

I’ve made three trips to the Skagit this season.  The first time was an afternoon trip and it was mostly about finding where to fish.  I ended up fishing for about an hour.  No one around me caught any fish that evening and neither did I.  The second time was a morning trip before work.  I had a couple hours to fish this time and while I did see a couple fish pulled in by other anglers, I had no luck myself.
To be clear, I really didn’t have my gear dialed in on these first two trips.  I didn’t have sand shrimp or shrimp smelly jelly.  Also I was using winged bobbers that were too small for the task.

On my third trip I not only had gotten the right bait and tackle, but I had more time to devote to the task. Unfortunately the bite was off that day.  For the first couple hours no one along the bank near me saw any action, until one guy finally got a fish on the line.  As it turns out, that guy was me.
I had heard that sockeye were soft strikers and that they would often just pick at your bait.  That is exactly how that fish hit my line.  Instead of the slam your bait and run, I’m used to with salmon, my rod tip was doing the light, rapid bounce of something nibbling on the bait.

Alright, a momentary aside here.  One of the things you hear often when talking about fishing out in this area is “Don’t set the hook”.  Don’t set the hook on salmon, don’t set the hook on ling cod, let the halibut eat the bait and let it hook itself.  I swear its almost like the Pacific Northwest Fisherman’s mantra.   Not too long ago while ocean fishing on a charter boat, I’m convinced that following the “don’t set the hook” instruction cost me a couple fish.
To be fair, there are situations where you really shouldn’t set the hook.  Trolling for salmon with down-riggers, which you will be hearing much more about soon,  is an excellent example.

I was told the same thing about sockeye; that they have soft jaws and if you set the hook you’ll rip it right out of the fish’s mouth.  Yeah, right.   This thing was nibbling on my bait.  My line was straight out, cross current anchored by 4 ounces of lead and my bait was three feet at a right angle from that.  I took the rod out of the holder, tightened up the slack and set the fuck out of that hook.
Fish on!

Looking down the bank of the river at other anglers and their cars.

Looking down the bank of the river at other anglers and their cars.

With the light gear and low pound test line I was using that fish gave me a hell of a fight. It made several big runs peeling line off the drag as it ran upstream, downstream and straight out into the channel.  It also made 4 or 5 pretty spectacular jumps. I didn’t even know until then it sockeye were jumpers. It was pretty thrilling.

Here’s the part of the story that illustrates one of the great things about fishermen … or women.

The closest people to me were a couple guys about 20 yards down the bank.  The instant they saw I had a fish on the line, without a second of hesitation they left their rods, grabbed their long handled net and ran to assist me in landing my catch.  The one with the net in his hand jumped into the waters edge to put him in the best position and the other guy stationed himself at the shoreline bushes in case my line got tangled in them.  Once the fish was landed there was congratulations and they offered to take my picture with it.sockeye caught

Fishing is primarily a cooperate sport

Certainly there are some assholes out there with fishing rods in their hands, but for the most part anglers are just good people.  A bit of friendly competition aside, fishing is primarily a cooperate sport.  We celebrate each other’s successes, commiserate over failures, we share stories and tips and help out each other when we can.  I’ve heard the terms brotherhood and fraternity use a lot amongst fisherman, although since more and more women are getting involved in the sport, perhaps we need a less gender specific term.

Alright, getting back to the deliciousness, that sockeye was about 6 pounds. Pretty much average as I understand, at least in this area.  As soon as I filleted that fish and saw that brilliant red flesh I knew right away my first preparation was going to be. I had to try some straight up, sashimi me style. Some of my friends in the “brotherhood” offered their concerns about eating fish, especially fish that has spent any time and freshwater, raw like that.  My take is that you should look at the fish closely, check for any visible parasites or degrading in the flesh and so long as the meat looks good don’t worry and enjoy.  Those fillets were absolutely pristine and I went for some raw right away.  A little bit of wasabi and some soy sauce is all I put on it. It was absolutely delicious.

sockeye filet-2

Again, no digital trickery was done. Can you believe the color of that fish?

That was just the appetizer though. For the main course I wanted to keep with a simple preparation. I chose to pan sear it, since that’s one of my favorite ways to cook fish, and then top it with a simple compound butter.

A compound butter is simply just butter with stuff mixed into it.  Garlic butter is a commonly known one.  Compound butters were very common in restaurants way back when I started cooking. One of the simplest and most common back then was Maitre d, Hotel butter.  It’s essentially just a lemon parsley butter that was often, very often used to top steaks back in the day.  It was so ubiquitous in fact that it came to be commonly referred to as “steak butter”, although it works perfectly well for fish too.

The restaurant standard way to prepare it is to roll the butter in wax paper into a cylinder, chill it and then slice off discs of the cold butter to place on top of hot food.  That works perfectly well for steaks but fish, especially fish that is best lightly cooked like salmon, isn’t served well by having a cold piece of butter on top of it.  I prefer to use a dollop of butter that is soft and close to room temperature.  sockeye filet

I’m not going to bother going over the pan searing procedure again.  It’s very simple, season the fish with salt & pepper & sear both sides in a hot pan with a small amount of oil until it’s done to your preference.  In the case of fresh salmon, I suggest cooking it to about medium, medium-well at the most.

I will give you a recipe for maitre d butter though.  I would suggest using a good quality, European style butter for this.

Maitre d’Hotel Butter

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place the butter in a medium bowl and stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
Top finished fish with a dollop of the butter. sockeye filet-3

The Skagit River just closed for sockeye fishing but Baker Lake, it’s source has now opened.  Also, the Columbia river is teeming with sockeye right now with well over 1/2 a million going past the Bonneville Dam thus far.

If you can get there, go out and catch some.

2 Comments

  • glenn velasquez June 9, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    I participated in that fishery and pulled out three. A lot of those guys just have fish stories. ” these fish are soft biters,so on and so on.” Each fish I caught acted differently while on the end of my line and I got to say even before as sometimes it would be a soft bite others it nailed my gear.

    Reply
    • Patrick Fagan June 10, 2014 at 2:55 am

      The Skagit is opening for sockeye again soon. I’m looking forward to planting my folding chair on the bank and doing some plunking.

      Reply

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