by Jeff Goodwin
It's the fall season in Shasta County and the bad weather is coming! The leaves are turning, acorns are dropping, and the best fishing of the year is, for the most part, in the history books. We've had an exceptional year for fishing here in the north state and I'm sure a lot of you have some King salmon, Kokanee salmon, or even some big trout fillets in the freezer. Maybe some of you even have some left over from last year. Fresh fish is best for the dinner table, but if its last years fish or its a big fillet from a darker salmon you caught on the Sacramento River this year, smoking the fillets just may be your best option for turning your fillets onto a delicious treat.
Smoking fish is really easy as long as you have a smoker and a few basic ingredients. The first step in smoking any fish is the brining. Brining your fillets or cut pieces of fish is easily achieved using three basic things;
- 1 cup non iodized salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 gallon of water
These are basic ingredients for brining, but it's what I always use as the ingredient base for brining before smoking. There are a lot of brine recipes out there, but I find that I have a hard time telling the difference between my basic brine and one with 10 ingredients. I've smoked lots of fish over the years and people who have had some to taste have favorable responses. In fact, lots of clients and acquaintances ask for my recipe. Sometimes I will add a little ground pepper, something a tad spicy, or even something to sweeten it up, but not until after I've completed the brining of the fish.
Brining the fish
I will add the salt and sugar into my brine bucket that is already filled with a gallon of water. I stir in the salt and sugar until I believe it has dissolved. Once the brine is ready, I fill the bucket with the cut pieces of fish. I try to make the pieces of fish around the same size so it brines and smokes evenly. For example, if you smoke a big chunk and a small chunk of fish at the same time, the brine and smoke times will need to differ. Keep them all similar in size and they will brine and smoke best at the same amounts of time. I place the bucket of fish in my garage refrigerator over night. The following morning, I will remove the fish pieces from the bucket making sure to rinse the brine off the fish before preparing to smoke. I pat the pieces down with paper towels to absorb the rinse water and set them out on the smoke racks to get a bit tacky to the touch before I place them in the smoker. When they have dried off a bit and are tacky to the touch, I will sometimes add some of the aforementioned spices, like pepper, to the meat sides of the pieces of fish.
Smoking your fish
I will place the pieces of fish on the smoker rack skin side down. This makes turning, if desired, the pieces of fish over during smoking a bit easier and they tend to fall apart less when doing so. Smoke time will depend on the type of smoker you have, and often time the outside temperature will play a role in smoke time as well. I check on my fish often throughout the smoking process. I think smoke time is critical and it will determine the quality of your smoked fish when i'ts done. I would say I like the smoke time to be 4-6 hours. If it's done real quick it tends to end up like cooked fish, and if done too slowly may have an over powering smoke flavor when done. I've tried most of the wood/chip varieties out there and I'm sold on apple wood for smoking fish. It's got a subtle flavor that doesn't over power your fish. One important thing to consider is where you locate your smoker. It does create a bit of smoke in the air and if it's near an open door or window in your house, it can leave a powerful smoke smell for days.
Jeff Goodwin is a full time Northern California fishing guide. He guides year round for salmon, trout, steelhead, Kokanee, and bass on Northern California rivers and lakes. He fishes many bodies of water in the Redding area, but also guides the Sacramento River and Feather River during certain times of the year. Jeff can also be found on the California coast chasing ocean fresh King salmon and steelhead each year. To learn more about the fishing trips Jeff has to offer, please visit Jeff Goodwin's Guide Service. You can also find him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or please feel free to call him anytime at (707) 616-1905.