Author’s note: This column first appeared in the Clarion on Aug. 16, 2002. I’ve edited it for clarity.
In years ending with an even number, such as 2016, the Kenai River is blessed with vast numbers of pink salmon, bound for their spawning grounds. Hereabouts, we refer to such years as “humpy years.”
“Humpy” is an endearing term given to pink salmon because of the hump that forms on the males’ backs as they approach spawning time. Pinks, humpies, whatever you want to call them, they deserve respect.
At an average weight of about 4 pounds, pinks are the smallest of the Pacific salmon, but their aggressive attitude more than compensates for their shortage in the poundage department. When they are in the biting mood — they almost always are — they will bite most anything.
Due to the availability and eagerness of pinks, they’re the first salmon caught by many an angler. People who grow up near a salmon stream have fond memories of fishing for humpies.
The one shortcoming of the pink salmon is its tendency to mature rapidly after entering its spawning stream. In saltwater, it’s as pretty as any salmonid, with silvery sides and a blue-green back. But when it stops feeding and approaches freshwater, its sides turn to a blotchy white, and its back changes to olive-drab. The male’s back develops a hump that only a female pink salmon can fully appreciate. These and other changes occur in a period of only a few days, and eventually include changes to the flavor and texture of the flesh. Pinks are at their best when caught in saltwater, but some of them remain in good shape many miles up a stream.
If you’ve never eaten pink salmon, you’re missing out on a real treat. Pinks resemble rainbow trout in the color, flavor and texture of their flesh. I’m told by someone with a Texas connection that Texans who shun fish that tastes like other salmon will eat deep-fried pinks with gusto. Anyhow, because pinks will soon be coming into the Kenai, a recipe is in order.
Between the water and the pan, take extra care with pinks. Bleed it with a cut across the gill rakers, gut and ice it down immediately. Just prior to cooking, fillet and skin the fish. (The skin of pink salmon can give the flesh an “off” flavor.) Remove the bones, and cut into serving-size pieces.
Dredge the fish pieces in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Dip in an egg “wash” consisting of 1 lightly beaten egg and 1 tablespoon of cold water. Coat fish pieces with a 50-50 mix of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and finely crushed Keebler Club crackers. Add butter and a splash of olive oil to a pan, and fry at medium heat until coating is light-brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels, and serve with your favorite sauce.
My favorite sauce to have with fish is tzatziki, an American variation of a Greek version of raita, an East Indian sauce. The ingredients are: 2 cups sour cream, 1 diced cucumber, 1/4 cup minced onion, 2 pressed garlic cloves, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon dill weed. Mix all ingredients, and chill for two hours before serving.
Whatever else you do, don’t overcook! Fish is done when it will flake with a fork. This fish should end up crisp on the outside, but moist and tender on the inside.
After a meal of properly prepared pink salmon, you’ll wish every year was a humpy year.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.