Sunday, June 27, 2010

Salmon Fishing Gear and Technique

It's raining hard at our house today.  I'm still smoking salmon, but the cool weather calls for use of an insulated box and a tarp over the smokers to keep in the heat and shorten smoking time.  I lined a large cardboard box with Reflectix and covered both smokers, leaving space at the bottom for good circulation.  I then covered the works with a plastic tarp to keep moisture off the box.  A few rocks on top keep the tarp from blowing off in the wind.  This set-up allows me to easily reach the smoker pans for refilling.  You'll find that in cool, wet weather, smoking time can increase by several hours if you're using the light aluminum smokers.

I thought that this might be a good time to talk about salmon fishing gear and technique.  Let me start off by saying you don't need to spend a lot of money to fish salmon, but your success will increase if using quality gear.  Many Alaskans using simple spinning gear that costs less than $100 for their complete set-up.  When using spinning gear for sockeye, I prefer a good reel that holds at least 200 yards of 15 to 20 pound mono.  I've used Shimano open faced spinning reels for many years, and they have held up well.  The spinning rod should be at least 7 feet long, so you can "feel" the bottom and the fish.  The rod should be of medium/heavy weight.  Ugly Sticks are popular and tough enough to withstand the fight of a strong 7 to 10 pound sockeye.  Costco, Sportsman Wearhouse, Fred Meyers, and Wal Mart in Anchorage or Fairbanks will have a good selection of spinning combos available once you're in Alaska.  Most guides rig up their spin fishing clients with 30 pound mono.  Not a bad idea in crowded conditions as you can get your fish in quickly with fewer line breaks.  At the end of the line you will simply tie on a fly of your choice and crimp several split shot 24 to 30 inches above the hook.  The number of weights depends on the size of the split shot and the current of the stream.  More on that later.

Fly fishing gear is a little more complicated, and more expensive.  I have several fly rod/reel set-ups that I use dependent upon what I'm fishing, and where I'm fishing.  For sockeye, a seven weight rod with a large arbor reel, and a strong drag, as well as the ability to "palm" the rim, is a necessity.  If you use a lighter rod and a lesser reel, you will likely struggle, and break or lose your gear.  Broken rods and lost fly line are a common occurrence when fishing with light gear.  Sockeye are strong fish, and coupled with powerful stream current, landing them is next to impossible with  improper gear.  What do I use for sockeye?  A few different options.  I started out this season with a seven weight, 9 foot Cabela's blank, that I built up myself.  The rod has a fighting butt, and has held up well.  The reel on that rod is an old Cabela's Hemingway model with seven weight floating line, an exposed rim for palming and a decent drag.  I back my fly line with about 150 yds of 30 pound backing.  My second, and newest fly set-up is an eight weight, ten foot, Temple Fork Outfitters, four-piece, with a Sage 1850 large arbor reel, and 9 weight floating line.  My nephew, Colby, quickly upgraded to this set-up, after fishing for a few days on the Kenai.  I tried out his rig and was convinced quickly that the ten foot rod provided for longer casts and improved catch.  That prompted me to let loose of the $400 for line, rod, and reel.  The Temple Fork rod has a lifetime replacement warranty, so the initial cost is offset by the fact you can replace it for $25, no questions asked.  We will soon find out how that works out, as Colby's rod broke yesterday.  This kind of fishing is hard on equipment, and your wallet.  Fortunately, Colby has a 9 foot Ugly Stick and his good reel to hold him over, while waiting for a new rod.

For larger salmon, a nine or ten weight rod may be necessary.  Kings and Cohos are bigger fish, requiring more substantial rod weight in most conditions.  Where I tend to fish for coho's (not on the Kenai), my seven and eight weight rods work fine.  The Kenai requires the heavier stuff.

Flies used for salmon are as varied as your imagination.  For sockeye on the Kenai and Russian, I use number 4, long shank fly hooks with an upturned eye.  The Russian River patterns work well.  Color may, or may not be important.  Generally, when the fish are abundant, and "on the bite", color doesn't seem to matter much.  At the beginning of the run, or later on, you will find yourself changing out flies until you find a color, or combination of colors, that works.

Tie your fly on with a good clinch knot and take the running end through the loop twice for extra grip.  If you don't tie a good knot on the fly, sockeye will pull out the knot and you'll lose a lot of fish.  To connect leader to the fly line you can use a nail knot, or make a small loop on which to tie your mono.  I usually start off with a nail knot, then end up making a loop as I re-rig after losing my leader in the heat of the battle.  The reason for using a loop is that you will surely lose your fishing position if you're messing around re-rigging streamside....a quick loop on the end of the fly line is much faster than a nail knot and gets you back to the stream much faster.  The loop does not seem to bother salmon fussing with your fly at the end of a 7 to 9 foot leader.

The amount of weight you use, and where you position it, will affect the action of your fly, and ultimately your hooking and catch rate.  For fast water I use three or four number two split shot affixed 24 to 30 inches above the fly.  Regulations state that your weight must be a minimum of 18 inches above the fly.

Casting takes a bit of practice in crowded conditions.  Let out line about the length of your rod, then pull another arms length off your reel, before side casting or roll casting the works 30 to 45 degrees upstream.  Make sure you get the fly ahead of the leader.  Once the fly hits the water, keep the line as tight as you can (no belly in the line, if possible).  Follow the line downstream with your rod tip, being careful to feel the bounce of the weight along the bottom.  If you don't feel the tap tap tap of the bounce, you won't get strikes.  If the lines stops, or if you feel a bump, set the hook, it's likely a fish.  If you snag often, reduce the weight by one split shot, making sure you are still bouncing bottom.

Once you hook a fish, keep the tip of the fly rod up and hold onto the reel crank, using the palm of your hand and the pre-set drag on the reel to slow the fish.  Pull the rod toward shore, and downstream to help turn the fish.  Let the equipment help you tire the salmon.  Don't rush.  If the fish pulls off some line, let it run a bit before applying more side pressure.  If the fish runs upstream at you, reel like crazy to get the slack out of the
line.  Eventually, the fish will wear down.  Hopefully, you'll have a net or someone nearby to assist with landing the fish.  If not make sure the salmon is exhausted before you try to land it.  A net is handy, but cumbersome to carry, so I may or may not use one, depending on where I'm fishing.  A legal fish is hooked in the mouth, and the mouth only.  Foul hooked fish must be released immediately.  Foul hooked fish are also a pain to get in.  If you hook a salmon in the back or tail, you've got a fight on your hands, which can easily result in lost line, or a broken rod.  If a fish runs away with your line, quickly follow it downstream, reeling in line as quickly as possible.  On a crowded stream you will need to run past several other, not so appreciative anglers, as you pursue your foul hooked fish, so try to avoid foul hooking as much as possible.  Proper fishing technique will alleviate much of the foul hooking problem.  That being said, you will still foul hook a few when their are many fish present, so prepare yourself.  It was a foul-hooked fish that prompted my ER visit a few days ago.  Watch out for that flying hook when it breaks loose.  If using spinning equipment, this will be less of a problem, as mono doesn't stretch and rebound as violently as fly line.

I hope that this post has answered a few of the questions I get from folks regarding equipment and technique for sockeye fishing.  If on the Kenai, and in Cooper Landing, stop by Kenai Cache Outfitters for fishing information, as well as quality equipment and tackle, before hitting the water.  Also, don't forget your hip or chest waders, rain gear, stringer, plastic bags, and bug dope.  I like to fillet my fish streamside.  The fillets go in gallon sized baggies, then into a backpack for transport to the cooler.  If you are a tourist and need to store, freeze, and ship fish, the best place in Cooper Landing is the Kenai Cache.  Their website is 

Enjoy your Alaska fishing experience, be kind to your fellow fishermen, and watch for flying hooks and slippery rocks.....and..uh....possibly a stray brown bear, or two.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

How to Smoke and Can Salmon

Now that I've recovered from fishing, I've spent the past cpouple of days cleaning gear, preparing fish, and doing other odd chores.  Previously in this blog I talked briefly of my smoking and canning process.  Today, I'll attempt to add more detail of the way I put away salmon for use throughout the year.  The process begins of course, by taking good care of your fish.  Once caught, the fish should be killed by poking a knife into the brain and then bled by slicing its gills.  Keep the fish on a stringer in the water or on ice in a cooler before filleting.  When filleting avoid getting the fillets dirty and also try not to rinse in river water if possible due to bacteria and other bad stuff that may be present in the fishing area.  As soon as possible, get the fish on ice, or flash freeze for transport.  Freezing and thawing once, has no impact on the quality of the fish if you smoke or smoke and can. 

When you get the fish home, you can rinse the fillets briefly in cool water to get off the gurry (snottystuff) on the skin side of the fillet and any grit that may be in or on the meat side.  Trim off any large rib bones, fins, and blood from the fillet.  Cut each fillet into three chunks....tail, middle, and top.  Place chunks, meat side down, in a stainless or plastic container and store in the refrigerator until you mix your brine.  I use a simple brine of soy sauce, brown sugar, and a few spices (Mrs. Dash, cayenne pepper or cajun spice, and garlic powder).  I add no extra salt as the soy sauce has plenty for my taste.  You'll need to experiment a bit to get the right proportions of brown sugar and soy, depending on how sweet or salty you want the brine.  For approximately eight fillets I use about two cups of soy to 1 cup brown sugar.  Mix the soy, brown sugar, and spices in a container before pouring over the fillets.  Add cold water to the fillet/brine mixture until all fillets are imersed in the brine.  Mix the concoction with clean hands, cover, and refrigerate for 24 hours.

While waiting for the fish, prepare your smoker by cleaning the racks and spraying them with a light coating of PAM or cooking oil.  This will prevent the fish from sticking later.  After 24 hours remove the fish from the brine, allow each piece to drain, but do not rinse.  Place the chunks of fish on the smoker racks skin side down.  I usually do this over newspaper to help with clean-up.  Place a large fan behind the racks of fish and turn it on to low or medium speed.  Allow the fish to slightly dry and develop a glaze for approximately two hours.  If you want to add a little maple syrup or other "dressing" to the chunks, do it about half-way through the glazing process after some of the moisture has disappeared.  I like to "baste" my fillets with a little syrup or a mango habanero sauce sometimes available at Costco.

After the fish develop a nice glaze, fill up your smoker pan with your favorite smoking chips.  I like alder or a combination of alder and apple wood.  I sometimes use hickory and mesquite, also.  I don't particularly care for cherry wood, but you might like it.  Place the fillet filled racks in your smoker.  Put the smoker pan on the heating element and plug in the unit.  You'll start getting smoke in about and hour.  I add chips to my pans every two hours.  Smoke the fish for 8 to 10 hours depending on outside temperature.  The cooler it is outside to slower the process.  You might want to pull off a piece after six or seven hours to check on penetration of smoke and doneness.

Once the fish is done to your liking, place the pieces on a cookie sheet to cool.  Once cool you can decide whether you'd like to vacuum pack and freeze or go on to canning.  If you decide to can, things get more complicated, but the final product will keep indefinitely, and you will find more uses for your fish.

Canning requires the proper equipment, careful handling, and alot of extra time.  You can can the smoked fish in mason jars or aluminum cans.  Mason jars are the easiest and least expensive over time.  Cans currently cost about a dollar each for the size I use.  Regardless of the choice you make, all jars, cans, and lids should be washed in hot soapy water and sterilized in boiling water before use.  You will also need a large pressure canner for this process.  They are not cheap, but required. DO NOT TRY TO CAN SALMON OR ANY MEAT WITHOUT A PRESSURE CANNER....IT CAN MAKE YOU VERY ILL  OR KILL YOU!  I fill my cans with the meat of the salmon, after peeling it away from the skin.  The skins go to a dog mushing friend of ours for doggie treats.  Fill up each can or jar, but leave headspace at the top, so the container will seal.  Add one tablespoon of canola oil to each can, and anything else you would like.  In addition to the oil, I usually put in a couple of small slices of jalapeno and a squirt of catsup.  These ingredients add a little kick and provide moisture, so the final product isn't too dry.  Place the containers in a hot water bath until the temperature of the ingredients is about 175 degrees.  Immediately, seal the jars or cans and place in your pressure cooker.  Make sure you have plenty of water in your cooker, so it covers the ars or cans.  In my cooker, I can do 24 small cans or a dozen pint sized jars.  Lock the lid of the pressure cooker and bring pressure up to 12 to 15 pounds.  Cook at pressure for 90 minutes.  Once done, take the cooker off the burner, let cool, and release pressure.  Be very careful not to burn yourself when releasing pressure.  It is best to have someone who knows the pressure canning process help you through the first time.  Remove the cans or jars from the cooker and let cool on a wire rack until completely cool and sealed.  Avoid messing with the containers until they are cool to the touch, so you don't break the seal.

So that's basically how I process our smoked fish for the table.  If you should decide to try this, please research carefully, and get advice from your local cooperative extension service regarding proper smoking and canning technique. 

Smoked salmon and smoked/canned salmon can be used many ways.  A simple crowd pleaser is salmon spread made from 1 small can of smoked salmon and a couple of bricks of cream cheese.  Pour the entire contents of the canned salmon into a bowl, crush the salmon with a fork, and blend with softened cream cheese.  Add milk or beer to make the mix smoother and slather on your favorite crackers.  If you use smoked vacuum packed salmon, remove all bones before mixing.  The canned salmon will not have evident bones as the pressure cooking takes care of that. 

It's alot of work from catching to eating, but it is worth it.  Enjoy!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The String Method

I just returned from my second three-day trip to the Kenai.  The first sockeye run started out slow, but is now in full-swing.  Fishing on the Russian river is not for the faint of heart.  You will contend with crowds of people from all over the world attempting to catch their first fish, as well as crusty old Alaska veterans who really want to get their fish and just get the heck out of there.  Yesterday was like that for me....Colby and I hiked up to the Russian River falls after he got of work, arriving on site about 5:00.  It's a moderate three-mile hike on a good trail if you don't follow the river bed.  We carried our waders and wore running shoes for the hike.  I highly recommend not wearing your waders for the hike as you will surely develop some painful blisters on your heels otherwise...done that.  Also bear spray or a big gun if your qualified to use it, is a good idea.  Large Brown bears frequent this area and will sometimes want to share the fishing hole with you.  Give them their space.  Colby had his first bear encounter a few days back while fishing late in the evening.  The bear fished one side of the stream while Colby nervously fished the other.  Back to the trip yesterday.....I've been fishing in Alaska for nearly thirty years and many years ago gave up fishing the Russian due to the crowded conditions we Alaskans call "combat fishing".  However, having Colby up here this summer prompted me to revisit the old fishing grounds.  Fishing the Russian is a dangerous sport when hundreds of rods and flies are flipping through the air in close proximity to exposed body parts.  Around 6:00 last night the inherent danger of combat fishing caught up with me.  I made a perfect cast into a group of fish with my fly rod.  The drift was good and I felt the line stop....this is the signal to set your hook.  The hook set, but unfortunately in the side of the fish instead of the mouth.  This is not good.  Foul hooked fish are difficult to control...think 7 pound fish in a 6 knot current on the end of your line.  The sockeye made a quick run downstream and headed to shore amidst a mass of other fisherman who were not really interested in taking a step back.  The fish ran straight into the boots of a fellow prompting the fly to break loose under tension and rocket back to me at mach 4.  I only had time to make a slight turn away before it smacked me and buried itself deeply into my chin....not good.  I told Colby to get out the leatherman and clip it off high on the shank so that I might have a chance at pushing it through.  That didn't work.  It was too deeply imbedded.  It stopped bleeding pretty quickly and wasn't bothering me much, so I set back to getting my limit.  I'm sure I was a comical sight with the red shank of that number 4 hook sticking out of my chin, but nobody said a word because they knew it could happen to them just as easily...or maybe it was the .45 Colt I had on my belt that stopped any comments.  Despite the jewelry, I managed to get my three fish in another couple of hours, but it was difficult getting fish landed with the crowd.  We hiked out and I decided to head for home with our accumulated catch from the last three days.  I arrived home about midnight, put away the fish, showered, and headed out to the ER at our local hospital.  I must have timed it right because there was no waiting line.  I'm sure if I would have driven to Soldotna, the closest hospital on the Kenai, there would have been 15 others just like me waiting to be de-hooked.  The ER doc at our local hospital was a nice guy.  He gave me a couple options for hook removal...something he called the "String Method", which he highly recommended, or getting numbed up and sliced.  He told me that the "String Method" was really good ... when it worked.  The only problem was that it was extremely painful when it didn't!  I wouldn't be numbed for the procedure. That caused me to stop and think.  But the doc REALLYwanted me to go with the "String Method" and he had an eager cadre of nurses and a resident who were "chomping at the hook" to see this demonstrated.  Well, it was 2:00 in the morning, I'd had a long day, and I probably wasn't thinking too clearly, so I consented to his procedure under the condition that they would immediately put me out of my misery if it failed.  So the staff gathered around while he quickly tied a long piece of surgical thread around the curved part of the hook, which was barely exposed.  He then put pressure on what was left of the shank and gave a quick rip.  The hook came flying out, darn near hitting one of the spectators.  Blood was everywhere and one of the nurses just about fainted.  I didn't feel a thing.  The doc retrieved the hook, one of the nurses put pressure on the wound, and everyone went "Wow!  That was cool!".  One tetanus shot and my paperwork and I was out of there, not much worse for the wear and tear of the day.  Fishing rod, flies, plenty of other friendly fisherman, time with my nephew, a few nice fish, and a trip to the ER....PRICELESS!  You gotta love Alaska!  Attached are a few photos from the falls, the river, and the fly that bit me.  Enjoy!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sockeye Days

Angel is in MT with family, so the boys are busy having some fun!  Here are a few photos of our nephew, Colby, at our not-so-secret fishing spot.  We caught some nice Sockeye (Red) Salmon the past few days.  I'm home doing chores and getting the smoking and canning equipment set up before returning to the fishing grounds.  The close-up shot is of Colby with his first salmon. 

Friday, June 11, 2010