Despite the wild and wet weather of the past few weeks October is prime time for "King Fishing."
King Chinook Salmon, that is!
There is a simple reason that they are called "Kings." - after all, the big fish can tip the scales at fifty pounds or more.
Despite downpours and sea squalls, Grant McOmie recently joined a fishing party on Tillamook Bay where they tried their luck for the king of the salmon.
If you're eager to catch a "King," you arrive at the Garibaldi docks an hour before sunrise.
A longtime Oregon fishing guide, John Krauthoefer, (Firefighter's Guide Service, 503-812-1414,) told our huddled group of anglers: "It's the early bird who gets the worm, men! This has become such a popular fishery that if you wait and go late, you might miss the bite."
Krauthoefer added that it had been a long salmon fishing season.
I knew exactly what he meant because we had joined John on two earlier salmon fishing trips.
Our first adventure was in July - on the ocean - where the summer Coho salmon bite was awesome.
We joined John again in September when the Coho and Chinook season slipped into high gear at "Buoy 10" on the Columbia River.
Now, in mid-October thousands of salmon are migrating through dozens of estuaries like Tillamook Bay and swimming into their home rivers.
As we motored out of the marina, Krauthoefer noted that it had been a wet and wild weather week and that several big storms had pumped up a huge ocean.
As we approached the ocean, we watched huge swells rise and fall - sometimes fishing boats would briefly vanish as the swells passed by.
The bar was closed - no one would be heading out onto the ocean today.
Birt Hansen, a longtime fishing partner, had joined John and me on Tillamook Bay where scores of other anglers had also gathered - we were excited, anxious and ready for action.
After all, low tide was about to turn to flood and it might serve up the biggest of all the salmon species called "King."
"It's a perfect tide for fishing out along the jetty," noted Krauthoefer. "There's a small exchange. What those fish do is smell that that out-going Tillamook water and because the current isn't very strong and they'll come in against that tide - we'll fish the slack and fish into the flooding tide."
John quickly baited up the rods and reels with plug cut herring.
John's a big believer that a plug-cut herring makes the best bait when fishing for Chinook. He makes a bevel cut with his razor sharp knife just behind the herring's head to make the bait spin when it's trolled in the water.
He explained: "This is their (salmon) natural feed out in the ocean and they'll eat it like candy. You just have to get it in front of one. That's the big trick. So just slowly drop down it down to the bottom. When you hit the bottom, bring it back up about 2,3 cranks of the reel."
We dropped our lines over the side and John began a slow troll with the tide.
As the tide turned to flood, signs of salmon life began to appear as nearby anglers hooked up.
It happened to us too!
"Get him, get him," Krauthoefer yelled.
Suddenly, I had my hands full with a hard charging king that had decided to head back to sea.
Krauthoefer put his motor in gear and followed the salmon.
With a wry smile, he noted, "They're strong and full of muscle and they let you know that they're on the other end of the line."
After a twenty-minute tug of war, the gleaming 20-pound salmon came to the net and it was scooped aboard.
"A beauty! That's really a pretty one and they don't get any nicer than that," noted Krauthoefer. "The only thing nicer is we got to get the gear back in the water and get some more."
John added that a big ocean, coupled with a forecast of more squalls and storms; anglers must be on guard against a dreaded fishing disease:
"Don't get salmonitis!" he said with a chuckle. "That's a disease where you get so focused on fishing that you forget about your surroundings. This area of the bar can be dangerous. You can get in trouble if you don't pay attention at all times. Things change out here very quickly."
It can be a tremendous challenge to fish along the jetty - where the swells and the waves and the tide can combine to change conditions in a heartbeat.
We wore our inflatable PFD's (Personal Flotation Devices) at all times.
John would not give us - or any of his passengers - any choice.
For him, the angler's safety is personal.
"These are self-inflating vests and we wear them all day in my boats. I had a friend drown a few years ago and if he'd had one on, he'd be alive today. They're very comfortable and you don't even know you've got them on."
Sport-anglers catch more than 12,000 King salmon on the bar, the bay and the five rivers that flow into the bay on their way to the sea.
So, special rules are in place to protect the Kings from over harvest. An angler can keep one King per day and five per season from Tillamook Bay or its rivers. In addition, anglers can also keep a hatchery Coho salmon.
Our luck soon changed too!
John's rod doubled down from another fresh king salmon.
"Oh, just let him run if he wants to run," noted Hansen. "That fish was in the ocean five minutes ago so it's full of fight."
The battle was on as another twenty-pound King charged down to the bottom.
After twenty minutes, the shimmering silver Chinook came to the net and I lifted it aboard.
"That's as pretty a king as the last," noted Krauthoefer. "What a beauty and it's funny; after you've fished for years and years, your knees still shake when the fish is in the boat. It's a great experience."
While Birt Hansen enjoys the fishing, he admitted that there are other reasons to go fishing for kings in Tillamook Bay.
"The attraction to me is really the outdoors - just watching nature around you - birds and the other different wildlife that live here. Plus, the smell and sounds of the bay and nearby ocean - all of it creates lifetime memories."
It is always a challenge to catch a big salmon, but now that I had landed a dandy, twenty-pound chrome bright salmon, what to do with the catch?
A visit to Debbie D's Smoked Meats in Tillamook provided the answer and plenty of good advice on how to care for the catch.
First, owner, Debbie Downie showed me the easiest way to filet a big fish. She has filleted a thousand salmon the past thirteen years at her homegrown business in Tillamook. She's a pro with a distinct honor:
"I've never cut myself," she offered with a smile. "Knock on wood, but it's never happened. "
Her technique and expertise is based on tip number one: a sharp knife that makes the job smooth as silk.
"I cut the fins off because when you go to filet it, your knife can get caught in that and then you get a little wow in the meat. I leave the "collar," on - that's the hard plate that extends from the pectoral fins up the sides of the fish; the collar gives you a good hand grip to hold on to."
Then she smoothly slid her knife - tight to the backbone - down the length of the entire salmon, flipped the fish over and repeated the same cut on the other side.
"And there is no waste on that at all," she added.
As I looked over the with two gorgeous, crimson filets, she offered tip number two - smoke only red-meated fish rather than salmon that are past their prime.
She reached into a nearby tub of filets and pulled out a flesh colored salmon fillet, "This is one that was in the river - and look here, you can see how dark the skin is. The flesh is soft and there will be little flavor. People come in and think we can smoke and brine it back to health. I'd say, 'Oh no, this is sturgeon, she added with a laugh."
As I watched her cut the salmon in to smaller chunks, I asked the accomplished pro, "When you go home at night do you dream of fish faces?"
"I do, I do," she noted with a laugh.
Debbie Downie proceeded to show how she makes a liquid brine. She started with 6 pounds of brown sugar, which she crumpled up with her hands.
"Here's a tip," she offered. "This has to be really, really fine - no clumps allowed."
Then she added 2 ounces of granulated onion followed by a quart of soy sauce.
She thoroughly mixed the soy with the sugar and onion and added, "The soy contains all the salt I need to make the brine, so I don't add anymore salt. You could also add granulated garlic at this point. Another option is to add sodium nitrite - that's a color preservative - about a half an ounce for this amount of brine."
Debbie guided us to her nearby massive smoker and opened the door. Smoke - she prefers alder wood for salmon smoking - poured out of the doorway - inside was a huge rack of finished product. Or nearly finished, that is!
"First, it's time to vacuum," she noted.
Debbie is a big believer that vacuum packing the product extends the shelf life of your smoked fish:
"Oh absolutely! Getting the air out is really the main thing because the air will freeze around your product and that's what makes it dry out and that's where you get your freezer burn."
Her finished products attract customers from across the region by folks who've discovered Debbie D's secret for salmon smoking success: "You have to really take care of your salmon. Treat it with respect and care and you'll be rewarded with a great treat."
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