The signs of seasonal change are easy to see along Oregon’s rivers and streams where fall colors really light up the scene.
But there’s another sign hidden in the water that you cannot see: salmon are coming home!
Oregon’s fall salmon fishing is big time outdoors recreation as thousands head to bays and rivers to catch big fish.
When daylight’s a glimmer on the eastern horizon, three generations of the Mill’s family agree that salmon fishing in the Nehalem River estuary is full of promise.
David Mills grew up angling across Oregon and said it provided him with positive alternatives when he was young: “The world is so full of video games and quick satisfaction, but going out with family or friends and ending the day in beautiful part of Oregon, it just doesn’t get much better than that.”
His dad, Eldon Mills is a longtime Hillsboro resident who made fishing trips a regular part of his family’s travels. He said that it never gets much better after a big Coho salmon grabs a spinner: “Oh, I love that first part of the fish battle – the take down – that is the best part.”
Longtime fishing guide, John Krauthoefer, (Firefighter’s Guide Service) said that estuary salmon fishing tactics are simple: “Speed, presentation and keeping it in the zone where the fish are swimming. If you are going with the tide, go a bite faster to get the spinner to spin and if you are going against the current, slow down. If you feel anything, you set the hook.”
Eldon’s grandson, Matt Mills, set the hook hard against a gleaming Coho that immediately shot across the calm surface – it spun around and shot directly at the boat and then crashed atop the water three times.
“Big wild coho, I’ll bet.” Noted Krauthoefer, who slid the net under the gleaming but exhausted salmon.
“Now lift straight up Matt. Oh, that’s a big one. That is a big coho! Really special”
There was some something special about the Coho salmon: it was a wild fish that was born in the gravel. You could tell it was wild because it had an adipose fin – a half moon shaped fin in front of the tail. Hatchery salmon have that particular fin removed when they’re babies.
Wild coho salmon have made a turn around and anglers are fortunate that they can catch and keep them this season.
Nehalem River estuary anglers are allowed to keep 1 wild Coho a day – 2 for the season until a quota of 1200 wild fish is reached.
Anglers are also allowed to keep one additional hatchery Coho or a Chinook.
It’s the first time in 20 years that anglers have been allowed to harvest wild Coho and it signals a remarkable recovery that the state and federal fish and wildlife agencies began in the early 90’s.
Mills noted, ”These fish are a northwest heritage and the opportunity to actually catch and keep these fish kind connects us with our region. Salmon have such a rich heritage to us.”
John added the best was yet to come: “Yes, we can take them home and eat them and boy oh boy, they are a good eating fish!”
Steve Fick and his older brother Cliff Fick enjoy cooking salmon as much as they enjoy catching them.
Steve is a commercial fisherman and Cliff has been an accomplished chef for nearly forty years.
The brothers are native Astorians who love salmon recipes that are different from the crowd.
"Today, we’re going to prepare salmon cheeks, salmon chowder and a raspberry better salmon. I grew up with each of these recipes and they are great.”
The Ficks called their homespun recipes, “simple and delicious.”
“The salmon cheeks are a delicacy that most folks don’t even know about,” noted the younger Fick.
He took a small, sharp knife and deftly filleted two silver dollar sized muscles from either side of the salmon’s head; just behind and above the jaw line.
“These cheeks are really mild in flavor,” he added. “They do not taste fishy at all!”
He floured each silver dollar size filet, dipped each into an egg wash and then covered them with a soda cracker coating. The hot vegetable oil sizzled as each bite-sized piece of salmon was dropped into the frying pan.
Fick noted that cooking time is only a moment because overcooked salmon “tastes like cardboard.”
Recipe number two makes even more use of salmon pieces that most anglers toss aside. Fick placed salmon carcass pieces into boiling water to boil and then simmer for no more than 15 minutes.
He then “picked the bones clean.”
“This makes the finest chowder ever,” he added with a smile.
Salmon chowder is easy to prepare with one quart each of milk or half and half. Fick added a couple cups of bacon, celery, onion and dill to the mixture. He then added a couple cups of frozen peas and four cups of cooked potatoes.
The chowder mixture rose to a rolling boil. Fick turned off the heat and the chowder was ready to eat.
He noted, “So many people – they toss out the salmon leftovers when they could be cooked and used. You are really missing an opportunity for some good meals when you overlook these pieces.
Finally, recipe number three was easy as can be: a salmon filet on the barbeque. The elder Fick removed the skin from a small coho filet and added two tablespoons of lemon juice inside a foil wrapped package. He placed the fish on the hot coals where it cooked for no more than ten minutes.
Meanwhile, Steve prepared a topping he called “the perfect cap to the fish.”
He mixed two tablespoons each of raspberry jam and butter, then heated the mixture and then thoroughly stirred the mixture and drizzled it across the cooked filet.
“This adds a delicious hot and tart and tangy taste,” noted Cliff, “ I like to make a hot salad out of it – so I’ve placed the filet in a bed of greens with cooked prawns as an added surprise across the top. Beautiful isn’t it?”
Each of the Fick’s recipes was so easy that anyone can try them. They provide a fine way to round out a day’s adventure of catching and cooking Oregon fresh caught salmon.
“I enjoy harvesting and preparing the catch – it’s rewarding for people who take it their fishing trip to that next step really. Cooking your catch provides a more enjoyable experience to the whole adventure.”
FRIED SALMON CHEEKS
Saltine cracker crumbs
1. Roll salmon cheeks in flour. (This helps the egg batter and cracker crumbs stick).
2. Beat eggs. Dip cheeks in egg wash and roll in cracker crumbs. (Don’t salt crackers as they have plenty.
3. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with cooking oil heat to 375°- 400°. The oil must be hot before placing the breaded cheeks into the pan or the cheeks will become soggy.
Fry the cheeks until brown on both sides then place on a plate with paper towels to remove excess oil before serving.
1 lb. Salmon Frames or Chunked Salmon
5-6 Strips Bacon
½ c. Celery
½ c. Onion
3 lg. Potatoes cooked and chopped.
Salt and pepper to taste
1 c. peas
1 Qt. Half & Half or other less creamy milk
Dill and or Thyme to taste
1. Boil water. Cook salmon then drain and separate meat from bones.
In a soup kettle cook bacon, celery and onion until done. Lower heat to (250° - 275°). Place half & half into kettle then add remaining ingredients. Stir occasionally until hot. It is important not to warm ingredients to fast as this can cause milk to curdle.
RASPBERRY BUTTER SALMON
1 – Skinless Salmon Fillet
1 lb. Lg. Prawns (21-25 count)
1. Place salmon on foil. Salt and pepper to your taste. Wrap foil up around fish to keep moist. Place on barbeque and cook until done about 7-10 minutes.
2. Peel prawns. Place on barbeque and cook for 2-3 minutes until done.
3. For Raspberry butter combine a 50/50 mixture of butter and raspberry jam in a bowl and melt.
4. Once the salmon is done place on a bed of greens and garnish with prawns.
Drizzle Raspberry Butter over fish and serve.