OUTPOST 4 "Steelhead"
Born of huge brawling rivers and tucked away, sheltered streams, steelhead are widely considered to be one of the most prized game fish in North America.
They are the most genetically basic of all the salmon species and it is thought that the steelhead is the progenitor of all other salmon species. They are exceptional leapers and will reach the upper sections of rivers well above waterfalls and cascades that stop any other salmon species.
Aside from adapting pacific salmon recipes, there really isn’t a tradition of preparing steelhead for the table. After decades of decline, most anglers approach steelhead with a reverence that would never allow for the killing of these regal fish.
With the advent of salmon enhancement hatcheries, it has become legal in some river systems, if not expected, for anglers to dispatch hatchery reared steelhead. To maintain respect, this steelhead should be prepared well and eaten with ceremony. After all, it did travel thousands of kilometres to get to your feet.
Like salmon, steelhead spend most of their lives in the open ocean feeding on herring, squid and other small bait fish. They return to the river they were born in and spawn. Unlike salmon, however, they do not necessarily die after spawning. In a phoenix-like transformation, they can repair and make the incredible journey multiple times to create multiple generations.
I have never killed a steelhead before. It has never entered my mind to do so. I have revered steelhead as long as I’ve been an angler. It is heavily engraved in my mind that steelhead are to be admired, not killed.
Hatchery created steelhead fall into a different category. They are inferior, if, for the only reason that they were created without natural selection in play. They are the progeny of two steelhead paired up by hatchery workers. Gone is the mystery and sorcery of a wild river and wild creatures coming together of their own volition. Essentially, hatchery steelhead are a genetic shadow of their wild cousins.
Because of this, we are able to kill two hatchery steelhead per day from the Stamp River.
Hatchery steelhead can easily be identified by the lack of an adipose fin just ahead of the tail. On the Stamp River system, these fatty little fins are cut off by hand at the Robertson Creek hatchery prior to the release of the year-old smolts into the river.
To add to my trepidation, I learned we were going to be using level-wind reels. Aside from saltwater salmon fishing and a spear-gun, I’ve only ever used a fly rod. I had serious concern that each cast was going to end up in a bird’s nest of 15lb test line. With some kind words and a cooperative young hatchery steelhead, my concerns were quickly set aside.
Hatchery Steelhead with Grand Fir
While drifting a river, you don’t usually cart along a fully kitted-out kitchen set-up.
If you’re lucky, all that makes the trip is a small pot, a cast iron pan and a sharp knife. Thankfully, that’s all you really need. It was a privilege to be able to take a hatchery steelhead from the Stamp River. The best way to honour this fish was to keep things simple. The only additional ingredient was the Grand Fir. Bill Jones from Deerholme Farm turned us on to Grand Fir tea and with its amazing citrus scent and grapefruit-like flavour we had to try it with fish.
I don’t think it gets much more classic than a riverside lunch on a beautiful river at the end of a good morning on the water.
Ingredients (Serves 2)
3lb hatchery steelhead - filleted with pin bones removed. Cut each side into two servings and leave skin on.
4 sprigs of Grand Fir - Use just the young needles. Crush them in your hand to release the oils and aroma.http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/library/documents/treebook/grandfir.htm
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 C couscous
hand full of chives - chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp lemon zest
Fire - make your fire and be sure to place some stones that will act as a platform for your pan. Let the flames burn down to hot coals.
Bring the Water to a Boil - Pour the water into a small saucepan and bring it to a boil over high heat.
Stir in the Couscous - Remove the pan from heat and pour in the couscous and salt. Stir to evenly moisten the couscous.
Wait 10 Minutes - Cover the pan and let it sit for 10 minutes. If the couscous hasn't absorbed the water or still tastes crunchy after this time, cover and let it sit for a few more minutes.
Add chives, lemon zest and olive oil.
Fluff with a fork. Gently break apart and fluff the cooked couscous with a fork before serving. If the rest of dinner isn't quite done, re-cover the pan after fluffing to keep the couscous warm.
Place the pan over the coals and add the vegetable oil. Allow oil to heat until it ripples when you tilt the pan (use a towel on the handle - you will burn your hand…).
Score the skin of the fish and season with salt and pepper. Place a sprig of Grand Fir in the hot pan and place the fish on top.
Depending on the heat of the coals you should able to see the flesh turn from a reddish/orange to opaque. Probably about 3- 4 minutes. When the colour reaches ⅓ of the way up from the pan, turn it over. Add another sprig of Grand Fir to the flesh side and add a squeeze of lemon.
Leave in the pan for another 2-3 minutes and remove. Place the steelhead on a bed of couscous.
Sit back, watch the river, enjoy the fish and think of the next chance you’ll have to visit this perfect place.