Tillamook Salmon-Catching and Cooking
If you spend much time traveling across Oregon right now, you will begin to see and feel the early signs of the changing seasons. For me, one of the surest signs of the transition from summer to fall is the chance to cast a lure or troll bait for salmon along coastal Oregon.
This week, a uniquely Oregon fishing adventure finds me on the ocean during lingering summer-like conditions as a strong run of Chinook salmon is staging for return to coastal estuaries.
Come along as we learn what it takes to catch a fall Chinook salmon.
On a recent September morning, it seemed quiet summer conditions near the mouth of Tillamook Bay might never end. The ocean had been flat calm and smooth for days - enough to tempt our small party of anglers to break out water-skis and go for a run, but that wasn’t our sport on this fine morning.
“We’re going to motor out to the end of the jetty since the ocean’s so nice,” said our guide and longtime salmon fisherman, John Krauthoefer, of the Firefighter’s Guide Service. ”So, welcome to ‘John’s Lake,’ he added with a chuckle.
He waved his arm against the morning seascape and offered: “Ocean doesn’t get any flatter than this gentleman, so we’ll go out here and find a couple ‘cuz they’re here.”
He was right!
“It’s a perfect tide for fishing along the jetty,” noted Krauthoefer. “There’s a small tidal exchange. What those fish do is smell that out-going Tillamook water and because the current isn’t very strong and they’ll come in against that tide – we’ll slip outside the south jetty and fish just around the south end through slack tide and then come back inside when it turns to flood 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, Todd Davidson had his hands full with a hard charging king that had decided to head out to sea. A longtime fisherman, Davidson had hooked a dandy salmon just five minutes into the morning’s adventure!
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.
“It’s a beauty! That’s really a pretty one and they don't get any nicer than that,” noted Krauthoefer. “The only thing nicer is that we must get the gear back in the water and get some more.”
It was a thrilling moment not lost on my fishing partner who was thoroughly impressed with the salmon’s strength, endurance and downright beautiful silvery sheen:
“You’re somewhere between a place of reverence and exuberance in our relationship with these fish,” said Davidson. “For Oregon, salmon are so emblematic for what we do and how much we love this place we call home. Plus, they’re just a ton of fun to catch.”
Krauthoefer added that the Chinook salmon return to home waters has been remarkable all summer long and along the entire length of the Oregon coast:
“It could be a number of factors – very good outflows, a healthy ocean when they swam into the ocean as baby salmon; plus survival rates were good. When you put those three things together and you’re going to have good runs of fish.”
John employed 10 ½-foot “St Croix” salmon fishing rods with bait casting reels that were loaded with 80-pound test line tied to a flasher, then to four feet of leader with twin 5-ott hooks. A cut plug herring was bait of choice and the entire rigging was carried toward the bottom with 10-ounces of lead.
“Ok, let’s make another pass along the south jetty,” said Krauthoefer.
John added that anglers who fish here 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 he challenge to fish along the jetty because as Fall months take over, the weather changes and the ocean swells and the waves and the tide can grow and combine to change conditions in a heartbeat.
We wore our inflatable life jackets 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 life jackets 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.”
Fifteen minutes into our pass along the south jetty, my fishing rod doubled over from another fresh king salmon.
“Ok, just let him run if he wants to run,” noted Krauthoefer. ”I can tell already, that fish is full of fight.”
The battle was on but soon as another twenty-pound King charged down away from the boat. But after twenty minutes, the shimmering silver Chinook came to the net and I smiled broadly.
“What a beauty,” I said. “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.”
I looked over to Davidson and wondered aloud: “Would you rather catch one or eat one?”
He laughed heartily and said, “Easy! I’d rather eat one that I caught myself!”
“There’s something really magical about being out on the water with good friends,’ added Davidson. “And catch a beautiful salmon and then take it home and have it on the barbeque that night – it doesn’t get any better than that.”
For more information on purchasing an Oregon Angling License and locating an Oregon Fishing Guide.
You can find the perfect launch point with the Oregon State Marine Board’s Boating Access Map that offers hundreds of boat ramps along the coastal rivers and bays.
Cooking the Catch
We ended our trip with three gorgeous salmon, so now the question was: what to do with the catch?
Longtime fisherman, Steve Fick, provided the answer with three remarkable recipes based upon a simple theme: “make the most of your salmon bounty from the sea.”
“I don’t like wasting things. It’s that simple. I grew up in a middle class household and we utilized what we harvested,” noted the longtime fisherman and Astoria-area resident. Fick enjoys cooking the catch as much as he does catching it, so he's a good man to have in the kitchen.
“Whether it was salmon or clams or venison or waterfowl, I have always lived by what my folks taught me: do more with less,” he said.”I try hard not to be wasteful.”
That is especially true with the parts of a salmon that many anglers simply toss away, including the salmon carcass or “frame.”
It provided the start for recipe number one as Fick deftly pulled an ordinary teaspoon the length of the fish carcass and scraped the salmon meat off of the entire frame. It was amazing how much salmon his filet knife had missed when the fish was initially filleted.
“There’s nothing to it,” noted Fick. “There’s a lot of meat here that the filet knife misses and this provides a tremendous amount of protein. I don’t think most fishermen even think about it, but we sure learned about it when I was a boy.”
The scraps of salmon (approximately 4-6 cups) are chopped up and then blended in a large bowl with varied ingredients including finely chopped onion, green and red peppers. Steve added two cups of seasoned bread crumbs and one egg that acted as a binder.
He then formed half a dozen salmon burgers and set aside the prepared burgers as went to work on recipe number two.
This recipe comes by way of Steve’s hometown heritage in Astoria; a Swedish fish soup and he began by wrapping a salmon head in cheese cloth.
“This really adds the flavor by providing a rich stock for a largely vegetable-based soup,” said Fick.
It’s a delicious and hearty stew that included potatoes, celery, onion and a bay leaf – all of it was simple and easy to assemble.
Steve poured 8 cups of water into a medium-sized pot – then added the vegetables and brought the pot to a slow rolling boil. He added the cloth wrapped salmon head and lowered the heat to medium for 45 minutes.
As the soup cooked, he moved on to recipe number three; one that demanded Steve get “cheeky” with even more salmon heads.
Steve pointed out that on either side of a salmon head, just below the eye, is a round area of soft flesh called a “cheek.”
“This muscle is right under the fish’s eye, so use a short bladed knife to reach in and carve out the cheek – it’s actually pretty easy to do and then you can simply pull it out.”
Each cheek is the size of a silver dollar and is pinkish white in color – more of a flesh-colored tone and it is “akin in taste to an oyster or clam,” added Fick.
He drenched each cheek in a dill-seasoned flour bath and dropped each piece into a frying pan with extra hot vegetable oil.
He pointed out that the cheeks are cooked for no longer than one minute per side. Any longer and the muscle turns to a rubbery texture.
In a separate frying pan with eaxtra hot vegetable oil, he cooked the salmon burgers for approximately 4 minutes per side.
At that point, the table was set - complimented by a selection of Oregon beers and wines that created a fine finish to round out the day’s adventure.
Fick added, “Many people just aren’t aware of how much you can do with fish after the filets have been removed. I like to do this with halibut and ling cod and sea bass too. I think it’s important that anglers learn that there’s much more to the fish that’s tasty and delicious. It’s fun to do more with less.”
Steve Fick’s Salmon Recipes
FISH HEAD SOUP
1 or 2 Fish heads (collars/backbones can be used)
2 Bay Leaf and/or whole allspice
Salt and Pepper to taste
Place heads in cheese cloth into large pot.
Add water to cover heads.
Add chopped celery, onion, carrots and potatoes.
Add bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste.
Simmer until done.
Remove heads from cheese cloth and remove meat and add back to broth.
Combine flour, salt and dill in bowl/bag.
Lightly coat cheeks with flour mixture.
Heat oil to 375◦ in frying pan.
When oil is sizzling place floured cheeks in fry pan and cook until golden brown.
Remove from oil and place on paper towel to remove excess oil.
Serve with tartar sauce or cocktail sauce.
1 lb. Salmon meat-chopped
Minced Onion to taste
Minced Red and or Green Pepper to taste
Salt to taste
Chop salmon. Combine salmon, minced onion, pepper(s), egg, salt and bread crumbs in bowl.
Make patties. Lightly oil fry pan.
Place patties in fry pan and fry until cooked through.
Serve on Bun or Ciabatta roll.
Treasures in the Oregon Dirt
If you’re like me, you’re bound to be curious when traveling the wide-open spaces of Oregon. I need to know everything I can.
That’s how it was when we headed south on US 97 searching for the forty million years of geologic history found in the Oregon State Rock called “Thunder eggs.”
I cherished these magical, mysterious golf ball size rocks as a child for their drab exterior, but their oh-so-creamy and colorful agate interiors that continue to be trophy prizes for young and old rock hounds alike.
Technically a thunder egg is not a rock: it’s a nodule or a geode that forms inside other rocks. Yet, if you were to judge by the throngs of visitors who stream through the Richardson’s Recreational Ranch, just off US 97 near Madras, thunder eggs are without question the most popular rock in Oregon.
The expansive seventeen-thousand-acre ranch allows rock hounds the opportunity to dig and discover countless secrets in the soil.
On a recent visit to the ranch, Casey Richardson, co-manager of the expansive operation, led us across seven miles of bumpy back road to a mother lode akin to thunder egg heaven in Earth.
Casey Richardson’s family used to raise beef across their impressive spread, but decades ago they had a different idea. Now, Casey co-manages the family property – not for livestock - but for the dirt under-foot:
“We do what everyone else comes for vacation to do, so how can you not like that,” said Richardson with a wry smile.
We arrived at the southern end of what is known as the “Blue Bed;” the oldest and most productive thunder egg site on the Richardson Ranch for the past four decades.
Casey said that here, it’s all about the “gas,” but not the kind you pump.
“Thunder eggs are gas bubbles that formed in a rhyolite formation between thirty and forty million years ago,” noted Casey.
He teasingly declared that all you need to make a thunder egg “is a volcano that produces lava rich in silica, the stuff of which quartz is made. As the lava cools, steam and gases trapped within the lava form bubbles. The beauty is in the bubbles.”
Armed with rock hammers, shovels, and insatiable appetites for the unexpected, Chris and I were anxious to do some digging in the dirt--and it didn’t take long to hit pay dirt.
The technique isn’t too difficult: simply kneel down and hammer, scrape, chisel, and mine the dirt away from the egg.
“Rockhounds love to get dirty,” declared Casey.
So bring a bucket, gloves and rock pick (Richardson’s provides a bucket and rock hammer for your use) to dig Oregon’s treasured state rock from the dirt.
Thunder Eggs became Oregon’s official State Rock in 1965 and they are small as marbles but can reach basketball size.
“Each one of them is different and if you dig couple thousand d pounds like I have, you go home with quite a feeling of accomplishment. It’s a ton o’ fun, said the smiling Casey Richardson.”
Filling a five gallon bucket is no sweat and didn’t take us long – then the real fun began back at the rock shop.
Casey’s lifetime of experience knew just the right angle to make a slice through one of our eggs with a diamond embedded saw blade and reveal the rock’s interior.
Thunder eggs were first discovered in this area during the 1920s by a rancher named Leslie Priday. For the past 40 years, the Richardson family has owned and operated its recreational rock ranch for eager tourists who can dig their own treasures or purchase them inside a small lapidary shop.
When they are cut open, they reveal agates of various colors and exquisite designs that stand out when they’re polished.
As we waited for the automated saw blade to slice open all of our prizes, Casey showed off his most valuable thunder egg called a “Priday Plume.”
He called it “one in a thousand” and it was easy to see what he meant for it looked fabulous with varied hues of blues, greens and reds.
He proudly noted, “It’s unique for its size and how clean each plume is.It’s a phenomenal piece.”
Richardson’s displays inside the shop are real show-stoppers too with rows of gorgeous thunder eggs and other exotic-looking rocks from across the world.
You’ll discover that thunder eggs can be made into beautiful, varied jewelry, especially pendants, pen stands, and bookends.
Family photos show off four generations of Richardson’s that have kept the business moving forward.
Meanwhile, back in the work shop, Casey said it’s the surprise of it all that continues to excite him.
Once a rock is cut open, each provides a lasting memory of time well spent in the Oregon outdoors.
“The really neat part is that when you dig up a thunder egg and bring it down to have us cut it open, you’re the first person to have ever seen that rock. And to think it took sixty million years to make it, plus there’s no two alike, they’re all different--and the next one is going to be the very prettiest one you’ve ever cut.”
I discovered that the simple beauty and complexity of these geologic wonders are best appreciated when the egg is carefully cracked open and placed on display to reveal a moment from a distant past that’s been frozen in time.
The sanding and polishing reveal depth and features that are beautiful and unique – just like the state that the rock represents.
“Everybody likes to get outdoors as a family and do something together,” said Casey Richardson. “Maybe you get a little dirty digging in the ground. But you get to take your prizes home, and a five-gallon bucket of thunder eggs only costs about twenty-five dollars. That’s not bad for a day together.”
Bonney Butte Raptors
On a clear day, the view from Bonney Butte onto southern flanks of Mt Hood is brilliant and awesome.
Raptor specialist Dan Sherman said that his camouflaged blind is the “best seat of the house:”
“Well, there aren’t many offices that have a view out a window like this one.I look straight in front toward Mt Hood and then off to the west as well and as I look, I pick out all the little black dots.”
Sherman is part of Hawkwatch International’s ‘Raptor Banding Team’ and those “little black dots” will take your breath away when they become big raptor birds that soar right overhead.
Sometimes they do more than soar – they also attack.
That’s what happened when a large red tail hawk swooped in to Sherman’s site and with its razor sharp talons became entangled in a fine mesh fabric called a “mist net.”
The net panels surrounded a feathered prey called a ‘lure.”
Sherman wasted little time removing the big broad-winged raptor.
He carefully bundled up the bird’s legs, talons and wings and held it close to his chest.
“Most red tails are not biters,” he noted. “But occasionally you’ll get one that will lunge at you. I am sure that if I stuck my finger in its face it would bite it. Well, that was the hard part, now let’s process her.”
Sherman and fellow team member Jade Ajani quickly and quietly weighed, measured and banded the captured bird.
“It can be pretty exciting when you're working with hawks,” whispered Sherman – a 12-season veteran at the stunning locale called Bonney Butte.
He added with a smile, “These birds can really make the adrenalin flow!”
Bonney Butte is on a ridgeline that runs north and east of Mt Hood toward the Columbia River.
It is a place where the raptors would rather soar than flap their wings.
“The birds are migrating south and looking out for other birds,” noted Ajani.
“They look to see if other birds have good lift from thermal updrafts that are created off the ridges. Plus, you often have westerly winds that hit the ridges and create the lift – that is what the birds are after – saves them energy to soar or glide rather than fly.”
Birds are drawn to the capture site by feathered non-native prey called a “lure.”
Sherman jerked a cord that lifted the lure and another sharp-eyed raptor was decoyed into the mist net panels.
Speed is everything in the capture and banding process. Not only to free the trapped raptor and catch more, but if stranded too long, the predator can easily become prey of another soaring raptor.
The team will capture scores of raptors on any given fall day and usually half a dozen species are represented.
Some, like a sharp-shinned hawk that Ajani held tight prior to release, sported a razor sharp beak.
They are fascinating birds that are rarely seen so close.
A half-mile away, several volunteer “observers” were perched on a rocky outcropping of the Bonney Butte ridge.
Hawkwatch International’s Adam Baz said that the ever-watchful volunteers count every raptor species they can from one of the most remarkable view sites in Oregon.
“We can see 7 and sometimes 8 different mountains from up here – that view coupled with the amount of hawks that come through here make it a really incredible place to work.
Hawkwatch International has been monitoring, trapping and banding hundreds of raptors since they began operation atop Bonney Butte in 1994.
Their record of raptors has helped to contribute new understanding of birds that travel from the Arctic to Central America.
Bonney Butte's geography makes it a first rate laboratory!
“The diversity of species we get here is astounding,” noted Baz. “On any given day we will see every species of hawk in the area, plus eagles and falcons too. It is amazing!”
It is also open to visitors every day.
If you come – bring water,” added Baz with a chuckle. “The weather changes quickly up here too, so a rain jacket is a good idea. A camera, binoculars and hiking boots are ‘must haves’ as well.”
I hope you make time to visit Bonney Butte for there’s simply no other place like it in Oregon. If you go, know that the drive is long, the road is extremely rocky and the site is remote. Be prepared and allow for a two-hour trip from Portland.
Hawkwatch International continues the capture and banding and observation work at Bonney Butte through October.
The Cloud Girls
When you visit the Tillamook Forest Center, you must step up in order to travel back to an earlier time.
Lisa Gibson, an Education Specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry said that the replica four-story fire lookout tower provides visitors with a “snapshot of life” from an earlier era right after WWII.
As I joined her for the trek to the top of the tower, she said, “It’s a beautiful coincidence that there are 72 steps to the top because there are 72 million trees planted across the Tillamook State Forest.”
Gibson said the women who “manned” 15 towers atop the remote and rugged Oregon Coast Range Mountains began after WWII and continued through the early 1990’s and they were called the “Cloud Girls.”
“It was a really romantic idea,” added Gibson. “These young women out by themselves in the forest – living on their own and watching for fire among the clouds and the tops of the trees. People had a vision that included a somewhat romantic image for their service.”
They were a special breed of Oregon Department of Forestry personnel because women like Eleanor Mitchell answered a call that few men dared in the late 1940’s.
Eleanor was prized and admired by all for her patience and willingness to endure lonely weeks in the woods.
“By all accounts, she really enjoyed the job,” said Gibson.
The way Eleanor tells the story, it was actually easy and a job she relished – and as a young woman fresh from high school in Yamhill, Oregon – so it was right up her alley: “I’d be on my own, I’d have a salary and I would be independent and meet new people.”
Mitchell’s tour of duty began in 1950 and continued for 13 years. She encouraged and even trained more women to join the Cloud Girls – like sister in law, Barbara Mitchell:
“Oh, I worshipped Eleanor – she was older and I thought everything she did was perfect. It was an easy sell job.”
But life inside a 14x14 wooden box was anything but “perfect” at a time long before the internet, cell phones or cable t-v. Yet, the women said that they were never lonely – in fact, they enjoyed the solitude plus they had lifelines of a sort in their portable radios. Each lookout was required to call in twice daily with the conditions that would track unsettled weather.
Even in summer, conditions could turn dangerous in a heartbeat and become risky and even get you killed; especially when lightning storms swept past:
“Yes, that happened to me the first week or two,” noted Eleanor. “The first crack out of the box - a lightning storm came up from the south and one of the strikes went down near the tower. It was a terrible crashing sound.”
But there was little she could to do about it for there was no escape, so Eleanor learned quickly that lookouts must simply hunker down, endure the worst and get on with their jobs – regardless of the dangers:
“I couldn’t escape to go down the tower and get on the ground. I just didn’t think about the hazard and I can’t say I was actually frightened.”
“Sometimes, all you could see was the fog, noted Barbara. “You are often above the fog and then it’s cold. I’d often lie in my bed and my hair would blow from the cold wind blowing through the cracks in the lookout walls. It would be really cold.”
You can get a feel for those conditions today on a trail that leads to the top of Saddle Mountain State Park in the north Oregon coast range where a lookout tower once stood for more than six decades.
“It’s a very steep climb; especially the last half mile,” said park ranger Shelley Parker. “It’s definitely not for anyone who’s afraid of heights, but it’s quite rewarding when you get to the top because you enjoy a spectacular view.”
Back at the Tillamook Forest Center, Lisa Gibson said that scenery aside, the lookouts were isolated by choice and they enjoyed the chance to serve:
“It really was an important civic responsibility as a fire lookout. In those days we needed to get to the fire quickly and there weren’t even roads to get to the places where fire happened. The fire lookouts were key in providing information to field offices to get fire crews to attack fire before it got so big they couldn’t control it.”
Eleanor got to know all about “big” fires in 1951 when the last of four major blazes collectively called the “Tillamook Burn” (1933, ’39 and ’45 were the previous Tillamook blazes) roared to life in what’s known as a “rekindle.” It spread quickly – fanned by high winds and came within a mile of Eleanor’s tower at Trask Mountain.
“I watched it grow and I know that sounds ridiculous, but I did because I was awed by its size as it roared up the canyon toward me. I was involved a lot with the radio work.”
She learned later that while she was on duty embers from that fire had burned holes in the roof of her tower. She kept busy providing conditions and the fire’s status via the radio.
“It didn’t dawn on me to be worried – for safety or anything. I guess I thought I was a pretty lucky and nothing bad would happen to me.”
Despite the risk, Barbara and Eleanor agreed that life was simpler back then and that their service mattered.
Eleanor said that upon reflection, being a “Cloud Girl” was the “happiest of my life experiences” and a very special time in her life:
“Oh yes! Our (Cloud Girls) our participation in it. We liked the independence and and the fact that our days were never the same.”
Barbara quickly added with a chuckle: “There are lots of guys that have patience, but women have more patience, right Eleanor?”
“Oh, yes,” she added with a hearty laugh.
While the official Cloud Girls service ended in the 1980’s, their spirit of service and their stories are alive and well at the Tillamook Forest Center. It is worth a visit to discover and learn more.