Smoked salmon is not only a delicious treat but also an excellent way to preserve last year’s catch, ensuring every fish harvested is put to good use while promoting sustainable fishing practices.

smoked salmon

Story and photos by Marian Grannulis

How to Smoke Your remaining Fish and Practice Salmon Sustainability

Salmon are surging into Alaska’s rivers as this edition hits newsstands and mailboxes. You may be reading this article from a luxury lodge, remote airport, or roadside rest stop somewhere on your way to fill your freezer and make some incredible memories along the way. The joy found in harvesting these delicious fish in beautiful places is unparalleled. Salmon season is a cherished Alaskan experience.

Importance of Sustainable Harvesting

As anglers who want to see many generations after us enjoy both catching and eating wild fish, it is important that we do our best to care for this incredible resource. One simple way that we can do that is to harvest sustainably. That includes harvesting from more abundant salmon species and only harvesting what you will eat in a year.

One salmon can lay between 1,000- and 10,000 eggs. The National Marine Fisheries Service has a salmon-survival pyramid that tracks each life stage. They predict that 3,000 eggs will grow to be 300 alevins, which grow to be 50 smolts, then four ocean going adults, and finally two spawning adults. Each salmon harvested is an opportunity lost for that salmon to reproduce. So, make sure that the salmon you harvest are put to good use and consumed!

Calculating Your Harvest Needs

smoked salmon

Each salmon fillet equals dinner for a family of four. One fish (not counting king salmon) has eight servings. If you’re a family of 4 who eats salmon once a week, then you need approximately 26 fish for the year. I encourage you to calculate how much you’ll eat in a year, add in how much you’ll give to family and friends, and harvest that amount.

Life happens even with the best of intentions, and sometimes we find ourselves with last year’s salmon still in the freezer as the fishing season begins. But I’m here to tell you this fish does not have to go to waste! I love to smoke last year’s salmon. Each spring, as I go through and prepare my fishing gear for another season, I also take out whatever salmon is left in the freezer and smoke it. This is my favorite way to use up the remaining fish and to ensure I eat all that I catch. It’s also delicious. Some even say that salmon that’s been frozen smokes better than fresh fish, because the cellular damage caused by freezing allows the fish to take on the flavor of the brine better.

Preparing Your Catch for Smoking

If you want to smoke year-old fish, you must take care of it properly in the first place. No amount of smoking is going to make terribly freezer-burnt salmon taste good. After catching salmon, you should bleed the fish immediately and rapidly cool the fish. Be careful not to bruise the flesh. Fillet your fish on a clean surface next to a fresh water source and avoid touching the fillet to fish skin once it’s removed. Be sure to scrape any remaining meat off the carcass. This meat works great for salmon burgers. And save the bellies for smoking! Smoked bellies are a delectable treat. They are always the first thing to disappear off the table when I’m hosting family and friends.

Next, vacuum pack and freeze your fish as soon as possible. I carefully dry the fillets and wrap them in plastic wrap before vacuum packing. I have noticed this really extends the amount of time they last in the freezer. Load the fillets into the freezer in a single layer and allow the fish to freeze solid before piling on more. This last step can be difficult with limited freezer space, but it is very important. Quickly freezing fish goes a long way in preventing freezer burn.

The Smoking Process

If you’ve done all that and your year-old fish is still looking good, then follow this recipe and turn what could’ve gone to waste into a tasty treat!

Smoked Salmon

  • 3 salmon fillets
  • 6 c of water
  • ½ c kosher salt
  • 1 c soy sauce
  • 1 c brown sugar
  • 1 c maple syrup
  • 1 tbsp sriracha or cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  1. Cut fillets into strips, and brine in a non-reactive container (plastic or glass) in the refrigerator for 8- to 12 hours.
  2. Remove fish from brine, pat dry, and lay skin side down on racks. Dry in a cool place under fans until a pellicle forms. Salmon is ready to smoke when the surface is sticky and tacky. This is crucial!

Flavor preferences for the brine can vary greatly. I encourage you to experiment!

3. Preheat your smoker to 100 degrees with wood of choice. Salmon is traditionally smoked with alder, but feel free to experiment. Maple is my personal favorite.

4. It is critical to not overcook smoked salmon. To prevent that, I suggest a staged approach at the following temps and times: 100 degrees for 1 hour, 115 degrees for 2 hours, 130 degrees for 2 hours.

5. Remove salmon from the smoker when strips are firm and springy to the touch.

6. Cool salmon for 1 hour and then enjoy!

smoked salmon

Proof that year-old fish can look great. Trust me, it tastes great too!

Trout Unlimited’s mission is to protect, reconnect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. Learn about our work in Alaska at Marian Giannulis is the Alaska Communications & Engagement Director for Trout Unlimited.

Smoked fish should be eaten within two weeks, or vacuumed packed and put back into the freezer.

For more reading about salmon sustainability, check out the Conservation Blog by Fish Alaska.