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High Plains Outdoors: How To Smoke A Fish

Luke Clayton
Luke and a buddy smoked and canned these salmon fillets last week. They are ready for the pressure cooker.

Let’s face it, what’s tastier than a crispy fried fish fillet? A family fish fry is a time honored event with many of us and one that this old outdoors writer plans to keep going but, there are other very tasty ways to prepare the fish we enjoy catching so much!

Wood smoke adds much to the flavor of meats and fish as well but what constitutes ‘smoked’ fish has different meanings in different parts of the country. For many of us, fish fillets placed on aluminum foil, seasoned with butter, lemon juice and our favorite seasonings and placed on a hot grill with wood smoke is a long standing favorite. This is basically grilled fish with wood smoke.

Redfish or striper on the half shell is a very popular method of cooking fish fillets on the grill and, the method is about as easy as grilling gets. The fish is filleted and the skin/scales are left on each fillet. The fillet is placed over hot coals, skin side down and the top or ‘meaty’ portion is seasoned with dry seasonings and basted with butter during the grilling process. The entire fillet is served on a plate, skin side down and the tasty fish is forked off the skin, sometimes dipped in garlic/lemon butter. 

These grilling methods are pretty basic, all you need is seasoned fillets, hot coals and butter or olive oil to baste and keep the fillets moist. But there is another way to add flavor to you fish fillets, the process of brining.

I have a friend that has lived in Alaska for years where brining and smoking salmon is a time honored method of preserving and flavoring a great tasting fish. I was visiting with my friend recently and he told me he was about to brine, smoke and can (jar) the salmon he had left over in his freezer from last year. I absolutely love smoked salmon and spent some time learning his method which I am about to share with you. The peak of the salmon run is underway and Alaskans are busy fishing and eating fresh salmon but they are also taking time to preserve some of their bounty.

We obviously can’t head to our nearest lake or river and catch fresh salmon here in Texas but the great tasting fish is readily available at almost all the larger grocery stores. I have enjoyed some great fishing trips for salmon around Gunnison Colorado, not the giant salmon caught up in Alaska but Kokanee Salmon which are really land locked sockeye salmon, great tasting little fish that average about one pound. More on catching Kokanee in a bit but let’s first learn how to smoke and can salmon.

A good friend and I recently smoked and canned some salmon. The process was easy and the finished product delicious. First, it’s necessary to prepare brine which is simply equal parts of dark brown sugar and sea salt. We removed the skin from the fillets and coated each side with the salt/sugar mixture and placed in the refrigerator overnight in a glass dish. The brining process causes the fillets to absorb extra moisture and salt which makes for a moister and flavorful finished product. We rinsed the brine mixture off the fillets and placed them in our Smokin Tex electric smoker set at 140 degrees for an hour of smoking. Just about any mild flavored wood smoke will work but we opted for dry peach wood which we had in good supply. The trick is to give the fillets a light smoke flavor but not overpower them with smoke and to insure you don’t ‘cook’ them, thus the low temperature setting on the smoker.

After an hour of smoke, the fillets are ready to be cut into small pieces and placed into jars. We used half pint wide mouth jars and packed the pieces of salmon in tightly, adding about a tablespoon of good olive oil to each jar.  One hundred minutes in the pressure canner and our smoked, canned salmon was ready for many tasty meals on upcoming fishing trips. Salmon croquettes is one of my favorite methods of eating salmon but this smoked variety is equally good on crackers for a quick snack while fishing, right out of the jar!

SALMON FISHING MUCH CLOSER THAN ALASKA- I first caught my first ‘salmon’ in Colorado while fishing the East River, just above where it joins the Taylor River, the headwaters of the mighty Gunnison River. 3Rivers Resort at Almont, Colorado has long been my headquarters, the camp is situated right at the junction of the East and Taylor Rivers, right in the middle of some of the most spectacular country in a state known for its beauty.

I remember well this first ‘salmon’, a foot long scrappy, good eating Kokanee that was making its way up the Gunnison from Blue Reservoir to Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery, where it was hatched four years earlier. Kokanee (actually the landlocked version of Sockeye salmon) begin their migration from Blue Mesa Reservoir in late August and the peak of the ‘run’ occurs around Almont in mid-September. During the summer months, they are caught in the reservoirs by trolling but when they begin to pack the rivers in late summer, they run in schools that are often easy to spot in the clear rivers. Kokanee have ‘gill rakers; their primary diet is zooplankton but they can be enticed into a reaction strike with small crank baits, spoons and spinners.

So, for a much closer to home destination than Alaska for salmon fishing, we might give some thought to catching Kokanee up in the Gunnison area this summer in the lakes or this fall when they begin their spawning run. Regardless when or where we fish for them, I can guarantee they make some of the best eating fish imaginable whether grilled over hot coals or smoked and canned.

Contact outdoors writer Luke Clayton via his website.

Outdoors writer, radio host and book author Luke Clayton has been addicted to everything outdoors related since his childhood when he grew up hunting and fishing in rural northeast Texas. Luke pens a weekly newspaper column that appears in over thirty newspapers.