An Outdoor View: Up in smoke

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2010

When it comes to smoking fish, there's no substitute for lessons learned from experience.

I had filled the racks of a Little Chief smoker with salmon just before going to bed. Some time later, a crashing noise from outside awakened me. I ran to the front door and turned on the porch light. A large, white, shaggy dog had tipped over the smoker and was trying to get it open. With some difficulty, I shooed him off and assessed the damage. The fillets had fallen onto the side of the smoker and were covered with soot, ruined.

Lesson learned: Beware of large, roaming animals.

On the Kenai River, three of us fished from dawn to dusk and caught three silver salmon. There was a makeshift smoke house at the campground where we were staying. None of us had ever smoked fish, so we thought it would be fun to smoke our hard-earned catch. The source of smoke and heat for the smoker was a small pit for a fire, directly under the racks. To avoid having to feed the fire all night, I stacked up the wood in the pit good and high before going to bed. In the morning when I opened the smoker door, I couldn't believe my eyes. Someone had stolen our fish! On closer examination, I determined what had actually happened. My heat source had apparently been excessive. Nothing remained of our hard-won harvest but a few small pieces of charcoal.

Lesson learned: If you smoke fish with buddies around, they'll never let you forget your mistakes.

I decided to take smoked salmon to a New Year's Eve party. I wanted to present a full fillet on a platter, but the only one I had was a pink salmon that been in the freezer for six months. Spots of freezer-burn lent it a spawned-out appearance. Determined to make the best of the situation, I went ahead and smoked it. The hapless humpy emerged from the smoker a grayish-beige color, looking worse than when it had gone in. It was too late to take anything else, so I slid it onto a platter, threw on some parsley, covered it with foil and prepared to apologize at the party. What saved me was that the lights were low, the guests were high, and the food wasn't uncovered until midnight, at which time the ravenous throng tore into it like hyenas on a zebra carcass. In minutes, all that remained of my fish was the platter.

Lesson learned: If your food is crummy, don't be in a big hurry to serve it.

Happy fish smoking, and happy new year.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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