Dipnetting sockeye is such a blast but then the real work begins: cleaning and packaging the salmon. This is a step by step guide on how our family does it. Of course, there are lots of methods but this is our favorite and as salmon season approaches, it seems a fine time to post about such things.
The process begins with a sturdy vacuum sealer. We use a FoodSaver GameSaver Titanium G800 purchased from the Anchorage Costco. No, this isn’t a sponsored post. FoodSaver has no idea who I am or that I happen to love their product. There are lots of vacuum sealers out there, but I advise spending the extra money on a good one which won’t burn out half way through processing a day’s catch. Set it up on a table and prepare a stack of the bags. I double seal them on the bottom and down the center. I also label them ahead of time with a permanent marker. It’s nice to have these bags ready to go because there’s a very good chance that you’ll be exhausted from fishing and need all the help you can get.
Rinse the fish with cool clean water and begin processing them one at a time. The back of a truck works well though many harbors offer processing stations which are quite handy if you are in the area (or if your cistern is nearly out of water and delivery won’t happen for a few more days). Josh and our dear friend, Justin, are pictured below at the fish processing station on the Homer Spit.
Of course, going to the cleaning station isn’t always an option. Setting up at camp or in the yard works well, too. Run a garden hose to the area and have buckets/tubs for washing the fish. Set up your workspace with a bucket for scraps, bowl for clean fish, chopping block, and a very sharp knife. Some people use a filet knife, others swear by a curved knife, but the truth is that the best knife for the job is one that is very sharp and comfortable for the user.
Slide your thumb into the gill and pull it back. Carefully slide the sharpened knife from the top of the head behind the gill slicing down the cheekbone toward the belly and then to the anus. Josh does this to begin regardless of whether he will be butterflying the fish and cutting out filets or slicing it into steaks. There are many different methods and some are even faster, but this is our way of getting the most meat off the fish in the least amount of time.
Turn the fish over to slice behind the gills and around the head so as not to cut through the organs. Pull the head down and all of the guts should pull out with the head. We create a brine and make our own caviar with some of the eggs. The rest of the eggs are dried on scrap wood and used for halibut bait. Try to remove the eggs in their sacs. Do not throw all of the heads away because they are fantastic for fish stock. The cheek and belly pieces are the best and most flavorful meat on the entire fish. Savor them!
It’s easy to separate the eggs from the intestines and other organs. Only save the eggs from the best fish for caviar (the fish shouldn’t have any worms in the meat — think sushi quality). Now, slide your fingers down the cavity to remove any other remaining bits and turn the fish. Cut along the spine following the bones and peel the filet back as you go. This is definitely not the fastest method, but it reduces waste while maximizing the meat on each filet.
Take extra care around the tail so that you don’t cut yourself, especially as you get to the bottom of your cooler of catch. Get into the habit of keeping your fingers free of the path and away from the blade while holding the fish.
In the meantime, Josh made deep cuts along the back to remove the strips of meat along the spine which we call “backstraps.” Those strips are for immediate use and should not be frozen.
Having the skin on the outside protects the meat. Now, slide the stacks into the prepared vaccum sleeves for sealing.
Notice the bowl of “backstraps” and cheek pieces on the counter beside the sink. Those went on to be dinner that night. Put the package in place for vacuuming and sealing. Prior to locking the package, try to remove the wrinkles and wiggle the filets so that they are stacked perfectly.
Make sure that the opening of the sleeve is over the drain area and the bag is smooth before closing the lid. Once the lid is closed and locked in place, do a final check before pushing the buttons for vacuum-sealing.
Notice the dual seals on the packaging. I use this to protect the fish during freezing but also because I may only need to use two filets. With this method, I can cut one half of the frozen filets free for use and throw the other half back in the freezer.
Just in case you were wondering, this is what the eggs sacks look like when drying. Salmon eggs are like candy for ling cod, pollock, halibut, and rockfish. We are also fans of using as much of the fish as we possibly can.