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Take me to the River

He walked down the riverbank without hurry. And, as it is when a man is without hurry, when a man has neither a goal nor a destination, he looked upon things and saw things.

~Herman Hesse

River post-15
When I was growing up, this time of year was magazine season for me. Fishing opportunities in rural Delaware during the dead of winter were, shall we say, limited: especially if you’re not old enough to drive. My fishing excursions during the coldest months were restricted to daydreaming as I thumbed through the pages of Field & Stream and Outdoor Life. The articles in those magazines seemed almost magical to a young me, and truly those “world class” mountain salmon & trout rivers I was reading about might as well been in Middle Earth from my perspective.
LoTR River

I grew up in incredibly flat country. Sitting in my Seattle condo right now, I’m at a higher elevation than the highest point in the State of Delaware. And rivers? We didn’t have many. Delaware did have the Brandywine and White Clay Creeks. That’s right … creeks.  Neither were close to me and neither offered much in the way of winter fishing.

But to actually be standing in a real mountain river, with snow on the banks, catching those huge trout the magazines called steelhead, was the stuff of my childhood fantasies. At least until I reached my early teens, then there were different magazines and different fantasies.
….but let’s skip past that.

It was just the other day: I was casting into the Skykomish river, the Cascade mountains were looming above me, the banks were lined with fishermen, and we all were trying to hook winter run steelhead. That’s when it occurred to me.
My god, this is it. This is what I used to daydream about all those years ago.
It’s amazing how achieving a dream can almost seem to sneak up on you.

The Skykomish River, near Reiter Ponds

The Skykomish River, near Reiter Ponds

To be fair, river fishing out here wasn’t the stuff of dreams right away. Have I ever told you about my first attempt at fishing in the Pacific Northwest? I haven’t shied away from embarrassing stories before, I guess there’s no reason to start now.

I moved here after living in New York City for several years. I’d come to love living in a metropolitan area, with access to all that offers: great food, great bars, great restaurants, great music, great food, lots of culture, and lots of food. The problem with living in Manhattan though, is that if you’re interested in doing something not in the city, say like … I don’t know …. fishing, it takes literally hours of travel to get out of the New York metro area.

That’s a big part of why I left the Big Apple, and moved here to sunny Seattle: all the benefits of a major city, with the natural world still in arm’s reach. That includes the aforementioned world class fishing.

However, after spending several years out of the fishing game, then moving to a new city and working on establishing a career here, as well as meeting people and basically building a life, it took me a few years to really start fishing here. Quite a few years actually.

Oh, I made a couple lame attempts in those first few seasons, at local fishing piers and such. I grew up fishing on the east coast. Catching the local species would be pretty much the same, right?

That brings me to that first attempt at putting a line in the water out here. I don’t even recall what river it was, which is weird, I know. All I recall was that I found directions on the internet to a place where you could pull off the road, and walk through the woods to a spot where people reportedly catch salmon.  I made some vague inquiries as to what were being used as lures, but …. what the fuck is a corkie? And how do you use yarn as a lure?

Ah, what the hell. Salmon are just like big trout, eh? I’ll just dust off my trout rod, grab my Mepps spinners, and head to this river spot. I should do fine, right?

Frozen bank of the Snoqualmie River

Frozen bank of the Snoqualmie River

I’ll skip over the strength of the river (as I mentioned, not many glacier fed watercourses in Delaware), or the crowded “combat fishing” situation (that I’d dealt with before). What really rocked me back on my heels happened about 10 minutes after I got there. Another fisherman had hooked one, a big one, and was fighting down river past me. Calling on my memory, and combining it with what I now know, I’m going to say it was a Chinook, in the high teens-low 20s: a beautiful fish.

Do you remember where you were the first time you saw the fight of a big salmon? It can be a transcendent experience.

All right, I’m a Chef, and I like to think I’m not an idiot.  I’d seen and worked with whole salmon before; I knew how big they could get.  However at heart, I was still that kid from Delaware, and it just hadn’t sunk in yet that the big boys could be found in an inland waterway, anywhere near where I was living.

I took one look at that beast, charging in and out of the shallows, and saw how strong it was even for its size. After I picked my jaw up off the bank, I looked at my ultralight rod and my 8 lb test line, and it occurred to me that I might be ill prepared for the task at hand. So, casually clasping my hands behind my back, I whistled a distracting tune as I nonchalantly strolled back to my car.

I’ll tell the story another time of how I finally kicked myself in the pants, and began the journey from the lost “young” man who slunk away from that river with his rod between his legs, to the suave, smooth angler you’ve all come to know and love.

Sky fishermenFor now let’s fast forward to this season. This winter wasn’t going to be about magazines and daydreaming. I made a promise to myself when I pulled my boat out of the water for the winter that this year I would start learning my way around the area rivers. By that I meant not just learning techniques, but actually finding out where to go. There are a lot of rivers around here (this place is the anti-Delaware) but exactly where you can drive to, park, walk in and fish, let alone where the hot spots are, is its own esoteric area of knowledge.
Fortunately, I happened upon a few local fishermen who have been nice enough to share not only some of their favorite spots, but also some rigs, techniques, and tips. I’ve said it before: on the whole, fishermen are a great breed of folks. And a good thing too, many of these honey holes are known by nicknames that don’t show up on Google maps. And the GPS won’t tell you to go past the combination BBQ shack/espresso stand/reptile zoo (I shit you not), drive through the town of Startup (seriously, the town is named Startup) and look for your turn off just after Pickle Farm Road (pickles are farmed?).  Those are actual direction markers to a spot I’ve been fishing lately.  The Pacific Northwest is a wonderful but quirky place.

River fishing this time of year around here means steelhead. This is a major sport fish that’s running season is wintertime.
I’d like to go over that again, just to make sure I heard myself correctly.  The season for winter run steelhead is essentially Thanksgiving through Easter. Coming from where I do, the land of winter fishing doldrums, that’s a dream come true. I’m not the most religious chap you’re going to encounter, but I can see winter run steelies being used as a strong argument that there’s somebody upstairs, and that somebody likes fishermen.

steelheadIncidentally, I’m typing this just after going back for seconds of the freshly caught steelhead I made for dinner, but I’ll get to how delicious they are later in this post.

Steelhead fishing is its own genre of the art, with its own plethora of approaches & presentations; I look forward to spending the rest of my life learning.

While I caught my first steelhead last year, side drifting eggs on a guided trip with Mark Coleman; I’ve been working on my own this year, trying a couple different techniques. Lately I’ve been focussing my efforts on one approach, and it’s produced for me: floating, drifting a jig under a bobber.

This was a new one me. Every time I’ve ever used a jig before, I was working it in a jigging motion. Hence the name, right?  In this presentation, you’re casting upstream and letting the jig float with the current past you and downstream a bit, before reeling in repeating the process: no added action needed, or wanted. The term you hear all the time in relation to this is “natural presentation”. You want the lure to flow unimpeded, like a fish egg or piece of meat that is being swept in the current. To increase that effect, you can also add a bit of cured salmon eggs, or a small piece of shrimp to the jig. I’ve been using shrimp recently

Jig Rig annotated

This is the set-up I’ve been using most recently.

The tricky part, at least for me, is keeping excess slack out of the line. Keep the line too tight, and you’ll screw up the natural flow of the drift. Have too much slack, and you won’t be able to quickly set the hook, and believe me, you need to be able to quickly set the hook.

Unlike other types of bobber … excuse me, “float” fishing I’ve done, steelhead aren’t going to keep nibbling and coming back for more, like bluegill on a nightcrawler. Sometimes steelies will grab the lure & hold, or grab & run, but often they’ll chomp once and spit it out. So when the bobber goes down, you need to be ready to set that hook.

On that topic, little aside here:
I’ve written before about how part of learning to fish in the Pacific Northwest often means learning not to set the hook. When salmon fishing, you don’t set the hook when trolling, or back trolling, or even mooching. Bait fishing for ling cod, you let them hook themselves. You let tuna run with the bait and tighten down the drag slowly. Halibut inhale the bait and hook themselves, and I certainly wasn’t setting the hook on those little squid I was catching in the last post.  But when float drifting for steelhead, and that bobber goes down….
Wow, I had almost forgotten how fun it is to rear back and drop the hammer like that.   And it’s good to know that I still have my hook-setting reflexes.


Iced up guides on my rod

It’s been kind of a tight season for local steelhead fishermen so far this year. We’ve had unusually small amounts of rainfall, and the rivers have been running low and clear. Whether that be the cause, or if it’s something else, you’ve had to put in your work to find the fish and get them to bite this winter. I’ve spent my share of time on the rivers without any action, hawkishly watching my float as it drifted past me each time, and periodically clearing the ice that built up in my rod guides. That’s OK though. Even though I wasn’t catching, I was still honing my skills.

I’ve been working on reading water, practicing controlling my line, and of course, picking up tips from other anglers.
“Use a longer leader, in this gin-clear water that weight so close to the jig was likely spooking the fish.”   “Add a couple split shot to your leader in order to get your jig down to depth more quickly.”  “Look for steelhead to hang near the ‘seams’ where fast moving and slower moving water meet.”  “Avoid the ‘frog water’ (very slow moving section of the river), ideal current speed is moving at a walking pace.”  “While steelhead tend to hover hear the bottom, they like to snap up at bait.  Try to drift your lure about 2 feet off the bottom.” “The clearer the water, the darker your jig should be.”
And of course I’ve gotten that perennial fishing advice: “Don’t listen to most of what these guys tell you; 80% of them have no idea how to catch a fish.”

While I was filtering through various bits of advice, I was also learning from the best teacher of all,time on the water, and all that lead me to my first “hot” morning of the season.
I had gotten to the river before dawn in order to secure a good spot before it got too crowded, and waited until it was light enough to see my bobber to start fishing.  After about 10 minutes of casting, Bobber Down – Fish On!  I fought it for about 20 seconds before it spit the hook.
No time for sad trombone music, got to rebait and get back at it.  Sure enough, a few minutes later bobber down again.
IMG_1970This one I landed. A beautiful chrome (meaning bright color & therefore good meat) hen. Got back out there again. It was about another 10 minutes until the next bobber down, but this one was a bit downstream, and I had been playing out line to extend the drift. I didn’t have the line tight enough.  In the second it took me to close the bail and bring in the slack, I missed setting the hook. Oh well, another lesson learned. Three casts later, fish on again. This one was a little bigger than the first, a chromer buck this time.

I started casting about 7:15, and by 8:00 am I had my two fish limit, and was relinquishing my spot to the guy down from me who was nice enough to net both my fish for me. Once again … fishermen prove to be a great breed of folks.

Weeks of hitting the rivers in freezing temperatures, with nothing to bring home but numb fingers & toes, and on this morning I had my limit inside of 45 minutes. And there was the added touch of satisfaction that comes from being the guy who was having that kind of action while fishermen all around me were looking for their first bite. I mean … I want to see my fellow anglers do well, but that is kind of cool.

They weren't huge, I'd call them "respectable", & they sure were tasty.

They weren’t huge, I’d call them “respectable”, & they sure were tasty.

I took my fish and practically skipped back to the car.

I stopped at a store on the way home after catching those two chrome beauties, to see what they might have to accompany my catch. I found some lacinato kale and pretty nice roma tomatoes. It was early in the day, so that left me plenty of time to oven dry those tomatoes. I could make some tomato basil butter, and those same tomatoes and the basil can be used for my favorite polenta recipe.

This will be perfect. Steelhead has a slightly milder flavor and texture than salmon, and I like to work with what I think of as “primary flavors” when preparing it. The easy acidity of tomato, the earthy sweetness of corn meal, and the aromatics of basil and garlic, will all compliment the fish nicely.
All right … I had a plan.

This is a multi-recipe dish.  The good news is that you don’t need to use all the components if you’re not feeling that ambitious.  The polenta is a side dish after all.  Just remember to come back and try it another time; it is really, really good.

Oven Dried Tomatoes
River post-6

This is simply the homemade version of sun dried tomatoes, and like most things you make fresh at home, they taste better. They are crazy easy to make, but it does take time. If you don’t have the time to start this early in the day, it’s best to do this part a day ahead.IMG_1974

  • 4 roma tomatoes
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp olive oil

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees, 180 degrees if you have a convection oven.
Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise. Toss with salt, pepper, & oil.

Place the tomatoes on a sheet pan (cookie sheet), cut side up. How they are placed is important. You want the skin of the tomato to act as a bowl, keeping the liquid contained as it evaporates and the flavor concentrates. If the tomatoes are placed cut side down, a lot of that liquid will spill out while drying, and you’ll end up with a very delicious cookie sheet.  For that same reason, you don’t want to stem or cut the end off the tomatoes, keep the “bowl” intact.
Dry the tomatoes in the oven until they look shrunken and a little “leathery”, but they should still be somewhat soft & bendable. The time needed will vary quite a bit depending on your oven, as well as the size and water content of the tomatoes, but figure about 4 hours. Keep an eye on them.
Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Oven Dried Tomato Butter
River post-10

I swear I’m going to do a whole post just on compound butters. They are easy to make, keep for ages in the fridge or freezer, and are a quick and great way to boost the flavor of that fish you weren’t certain you’d catch that morning.  They’re also great on a lot of other foods as well.  Try spreading some on a slice of rosemary bread, or melt some on top of a steak … amazing!
This is a time to use a good quality butter, whether it be a European style (high fat) one, or one from a local creamery. I like Kerrygold Irish Butter.  Also, you’ll see I use unsalted butter. I almost always use unsalted butter, for one simple reason. I want to control how I season my dishes, thankyouverymuch.

  • 4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 2 each (4 halves) oven dried tomatoes, cut into strips
  • 4-5 fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips
  • 1 clove finely minced garlic
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

Combine ingredients and set aside. Any you won’t use immediately can be covered and refrigerated for later use, or frozen for much later use.

Crispy Seared Polenta

This is a recipe I worked out years ago at a restaurant where I was Chef, and I’ve used unchanged ever since. Again, the main part of this recipe is probably best to make a day ahead, unless you have a little extra time to work on dinner.

  • 2 Tbs butter
  • ¼ onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2½ cups chicken broth
  • 1½ tsp kosher salt
  • 2 each oven dried tomatoes, cut into strips
  • 1 cup polenta (course yellow corn meal)
  • 6 fresh basil leaves, cut into strips
  • 1½ Tbs chopped fresh parsley
  • ½ cup grated hard cheese, such as asiago or reggiano.

In a medium sauce pot, heat the butter over medium heat. Add in the onions and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add in the garlic & pepper and saute for another minute. Add in the broth & salt, and bring it to a simmer, then add in the tomatoes. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Gradually stir in the polenta, and reduce the heat to low. Mix in the basil and parsley, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the polenta is very thick, about 10 minutes.
River post-3
Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the cheese, cover, and let it rest for another 10 minutes.
While the polenta is cooking, lightly grease a shallow baking dish.
River post-4

Once the polenta has rested, spoon it into the baking dish. Smooth it out with a spatula until it is relatively flat. Cover the dish with plastic wrap, and poke a few holes in the plastic to allow excess moisture to escape. Refrigerate until firm: at least one hour but longer is better, overnight is ideal.
River post-5

In case you haven’t guessed, here endeth the optional “day ahead” part.

Once it’s firm, invert the polenta out of the pan onto a plate or cutting board.
River post-7

Then cut it into portion sized pieces. The simplest way is to cut it into squares, and then cut those squares in half into triangles. Although if you’re feeling schnazzy, you can use a drinking glass or biscuit cutter to cut out round pieces.
River post-8

Melt 2 Tbs of butter in non-stick pan over medium heat. Add in the polenta and saute until it’s brown & crispy on both sides.
River post-9

Caution: polenta tends to pop & spatter a little when sauteed. So have a kitchen towel ready, and be prepared to saute with an extended arm. It might be a little messy, but the results are well worth it.

Sauteed Steelhead with Oven Dried Tomato Butter & Crispy Polenta
River post-12

The compound butter is done, and the polenta is ready. I also sauteed up some of that kale I bought in garlic & olive oil. It’s almost time to eat.

Lightly season the outside of the steelhead with salt & pepper. I don’t need to remind you again to use kosher or sea salt & freshly ground pepper again, do I? Then saute it in butter over medium heat, until it’s lightly browned on the outside, and cooked medium at the center.

I like to plate the fish sitting on top of the polenta & vegetable. Then put the tomato butter on the fish, so that it melts down over everything. Delicious!

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