On our 30 day kayak trip down the coast of BC, one of the things that we were most looking forward to was catching a salmon from our kayaks. We had grand visions in our heads of pulling our kayaks up on the beach after a good 30 minute fight with a west coast monster Chinook and smoking it for dinner. Finally, after 25 days, a few hundred kilometers, and countless amounts of salmon jumping around our kayaks, we actually caught one. It’s hard to explain the amount of excitement we felt at not having to eat another dried food dinner.
We’d seen a few rough plans/outlines for making these ‘do it yourself’ fish smokers but had never actually made one ourselves. When we landed on the beach, our lack of experience didn’t seem to matter, as our excitement took over and we did our best to improvise. I’ll spell out below what worked well for us, but use your creativity to build a smoker based on the materials you have.
Here are the basic order of operations:
- Build a fire
- Build the smoker
- Cure the fish
- Dry the fish
- Smoke the fish
- Eat the fish!
Build a Fire
Not much to say here.. Start your fire first so that it’s a decent size by the time you need it.
Building the Smoker
On a high level, what you’re trying to do is build a small enclosed space that will contain your hanging salmon, and eventually, be filled with smoke. You have to leave a small opening at the bottom in order to insert and constantly replace smoking branches. Aside from that you can be really creative in how you build your smoker.
We got the idea to build a teepee-like smoker from a post buried deep in a camping forum. Without any prior experience it seemed like a fairly intuitive approach. We started creating the structure by assembling 4 small pieces of driftwood that we had found on the beach. Each piece was about 3 feet long and about an inch thick. We dug the bottom of each piece as far into the sand as we could and then fastened the 4 pieces together at the top using duct tape.
The next step was to hang something that the salmon could rest on during the smoking process. We brought a small barbecue grill with us just for this reason, but you could easily substitute this for something else. One alternative way to hang the salmon would be to just use string. Or, you could easily rig up a rack using more wood + either string or tape (like shown above).
Finally, we wrapped the entire thing with tinfoil, making sure not to leave any gaps. The idea is for this to be pretty much airtight. Cover the bottom with tinfoil as well.
Curing the Fish
Before curing the fish make sure that you’ve filleted your salmon, as opposed to cutting it into steaks. Here’s a good explainer video if you need it.
Wet brines have two essential components: salt and water. The salt helps flavor the meat while the water packs in extra moisture. It can be as simple as just these two ingredients, or you can flavour your fish by adding other seasonings, herbs, or whatever else you feel like. We chose wet brine over dry brine for no real reason other than we didn’t think to do a dry brine. Feel free to experiment!
For our brine, we got really creative (some may say crazy) and used a mixture of water, sugar, and Ichiban flavoring (yes you read that right). Keep in mind we were 25 days in at this point and were running low on just about everything. That said, it actually turned out delicious and I would consider using Ichiban flavoring again!
After you’ve created your brine, let the fish soak in it for as long as you can before smoking. We just used a large ziplock bag for this and let the fish sit while we created our smoker and fire.
Drying the Fish
This is a step that we skipped, but apparently it’s super important. Ideally, you should let your fish dry by first patting it with a paper towel or cloth (could be tough when you’re on a beach with minimal supplies). Then, let it sit for 2-4 hours before throwing it into the smoker. This should allow the surface of the fish to develop a thin, lacquer-like layer that helps to seal it and offers a sticky layer for the smoke to adhere to. The salt in your brine should prevent the fish from going bad while it drys.
Smoking the Fish
Here’s where it gets exciting. By now you should have a good sized fire going, your smoker built, and your salmon brined and dried. You’ll have to find a way to place your salmon on the smoking rack without completely dismantling your smoker (if using the tinfoil method, just wait to put the tinfoil on until you’ve got your salmon brined).
You will also need a pretty good bunch (2 full armfuls to be safe) of tree boughs (sticks) that will act as the source of smoke for your smoker. We used spruce boughs but there are plenty of other types of wood that will work. This article goes into some serious detail on what kind of wood to use.
Once you’ve gathered enough sticks, it’s time to party. Start by placing a few of them into the fire and then wait until they’ve got some nice hot cherries glowing on them. Pull them out of the fire and blow them completely out before putting them into your smoker, right under the rack.
***Make sure you don’t put sticks that are still on fire into your smoker***
Though our salmon turned out great, it wasn’t perfect. Our salmon ended up half cooked because we let our smoker get too hot. In order to avoid this, make sure that any wood you put into the smoker is only smoking, and not still on fire or glowing.
Leave the smoker “on” for approximately 3 hours by constantly replacing the smoking wood with wood that’s fresh out of the fire. I would say your sticks will need replacing every 10 minutes or so. If your setup allows it, you can also baste the salmon once in the middle of this process.
When the 3 hours is up, feel free to rip your smoker apart as fast as you can and just devour your salmon. That’s what we did and I would highly recommend it!
This may seem obvious, but it’s always super important to be aware of your surroundings when camping, and especially so in this case. You’re essentially planning on bringing a bear, wolf, or other creature’s favourite smelling delicacy onto land. So be smart about where you’re filleting and smoking your salmon. (ie, maybe not right next to the tent spot..) For some peace of mind, we made a mad dash for an island off shore that we were fairly confident didn’t have any larger predators.
If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to reach out! Or if you have any suggestions on how to do this even better we’d definitely love to hear em.