Updated: Feb 19, 2021
Aussie surf salmon time is here! For beach anglers in South Oz they're the saving grace for what can otherwise be a challenging few months on the sand. The salmon is a surf fishing icon in this state, and gathering up the long rods for a spin or bait session is ingrained in our cool season fishing culture. It's popular for a good reason too, as it can be some of the hottest southern sportfishing imaginable, and we're extremely fortunate to have the numbers of fish and locations at our disposal that we do.
Salmon are a fish that can be stacked up, resulting in epic sessions, with large numbers of fish landed. For this reason some forward thinking needs to come into play, first and foremost to ensure a vast majority of unwanted salmon are released in good shape, and secondly that any kept are done so appropriately, so you can get the most out of this species. So much emphasis is on how to catch salmon and just putting fish on the sand, that it seems few are sufficiently prepared to utilise this sportfish when required to do so, or take the extra steps to ensure a successful release.
There's few more sickening sights in fishing than seeing piles of dead salmon abandoned at the beach because they weren't looked after. Or anglers couldn't be bothered lugging them back to the car. It's even common to find them dumped in car parks by people who simply 'couldn't be stuffed' taking them home, most likely as they were mishandled and next to useless as a food source or even bait. So how best to avoid wastage, protect these sublime sportfish, and pick up a much underrated feed while you're on the beach?
CATCH & RELEASE
Unnecessary fish wastage/killing is heavily frowned upon nowadays, and this applies to surf sambos. Some of the old school images of huge strings of salmon displayed at the end of a session don't resonate that well with many fishos these days. Keeping enough for your immediate needs, be it to eat or bait, should be the priority rather than 'necking' each and every fish you land for a glory photo at the end of the session. With this in mind, when you hit a school of fish you'll get plenty of catch and release practice.
It must be said Aussie salmon are a hardy fish and do for the most part release well. So many salmon you catch have slashes and gashes from shark, seal and dolphin encounters, yet are still the free roaming predator that we all love, that will happily whack a bait or lure on sight, no questions asked.
While most fish will kick off strong there's simple steps that can be done to help ensure their survival. The use of single, in-line hooks on metals, poppers, stickbaits and weighted casting minnows is now standard practice, and they do reduce damage to fish compared to trebles. They also land you more fish with their secure hook-up rate. When bait fishing you can also limit the hooks on your rig, with a flight of two hooks the most you need, and try and keep the size larger also so they're easier to remove and less likely to be swallowed. So instead of a 3/0, step up to a 5/0 or 6/0 for example, or use circles.
Furthermore, to speed up release have a good set of pliers on hand to remove any hooks. If these pliers have a split ring function even better as you can do on-the-go hook and ring replacements should they be damaged. Flippancy can creep in when it comes to handling these fish and there's a temptation to tear hooks out when in a hot bite, which is unnecessary and can cause fatal damage.
The basics of fish handling apply. Remove hooks as carefully as possible, limit time out of the water, carefully support the fish, and take the salmon back to the water's edge for release, ideally letting it go in deeper water where safe to do so. Despite best efforts inevitably some fish will not survive and you may also decided to deliberately keep a few to eat as well, at which point you need to be prepared to deal with your catch.
KEEPING YOUR CATCH
Let's backtrack a touch. Preparation for keeping surf salmon begins at your house when you're loading your gear into your car. If you have an extended drive home from the beach then you'll likely need an esky with ice in it ready to put your fish in as soon as you can after leaving the beach, as you would for any fishing trip where table fish are the expected outcome.
Given it's often impractical to carry an esky onto the beach, a large bucket is the next best option, preferably with a lid. Salmon can be stored in the bucket and kept submerged in cool seawater to prevent spoilage, and it'll make the carry out much easier. A piece of rope can be handy for the walk home also, if you have to carry back several large salmon and don't have a bucket on hand to do so.
A sensible move is to carry heavy-duty plastic bags and a filleting knife, and knock the fillets off on location, washing them in saltwater and placing them straight into the bags, which are then placed on ice when back at the car. This is well suited for larger fish which can't physically fit in most buckets and will spoil. This way if you break them down you're carrying less weight on the walk back, the flesh is well stored out of sunlight and heat, and you arrive home with your fillets ready to cook! Of course smaller salmon can be gutted and gilled on location and kept whole for simplicity.
Now back to the action. A hot salmon bite in the surf can see you literally deck well over 50 plus fish between a few guys. It's easy between the hootin' and hollerin' and just keeping the odd fish every now and then to find when the smoke has cleared you have a bunch of salmon to deal with. If you've left it until the bite has died down to prepare you catch to eat, unfortunately it's probably too late already.
Within the first 10-minutes or so after capture salmon should be bled, and ideally in the first few minutes. Cutting or snapping the throat latch and breaking the head back will ensure the best result. The fish should then be placed tail up in a bucket of cold seawater, or if this option doesn't exist, then buried head down into cool sand to drain the blood out. If it's not an extremely hot day this should suffice until it's time to leave or clean the fish up, but obviously the priority is to keep the salmon as protected from the elements as possible, and it pays to keep an eye on them. The flesh can spoil easily and go soft if left unchecked.
Salmon are a fish that can bring out different reactions from fishos, depending on who you talk to. Their reckless aggression towards lures, nonsense bait slamming antics, and relentless fighting ability and jumps makes them an obvious sportfishing proposition, that fact no one questions. From the standpoint of their edibility however, views are mixed.
We don't buy into generalisations about the table qualities of fish. The end result comes down to how the salmon is handled, prepared, then stored, and ultimately the skill of the person doing the cooking. If one of these vital facets isn't up to scratch then yes you'll be disappointed with the end result each and every time.
So what are a few ways to use this fish which aren't half bad on the fang if you've gone the extra yard to look after them, and take initial steps almost immediately after capture with the dinner plate in mind?
Smaller trout sized fish probably lend themselves to a wider variety of dishes, and flavours can permeate the fish much easier when used as fillets or whole, and the flesh is milder than that of a big old green-back. Smaller salmon can be pan fried, wrapped in alfoil and oven baked, or used in a host of other traditional dishes. Larger, thicker sided salmon are best baked whole, or filleted up and used smoked or in patties etc. But again, you're only limited by your ability when cooking these fish. Where possible remove as much of the darker, bloodied meat as you can when filleting, and also the skin where appropriate to reduce the strong flavour.
One of the mainstream uses for salmon is undoubtedly smoking them, and they do come up a million bucks in the smoker! Remarkably smoked salmon is very mild and you could pass it off for a host of much higher rated table fish. This is the ultimate finger food or main course, and is so easy to cook with an upright gas smoker, or even a smaller portable smoker.
Salmon are also great in fish cakes, basically the same steps as making tuna patties can be followed, or there are some tasty alternatives, like the Thai fish cakes we made pictured. If you're looking to conceal the flavours of the salmon, fish cakes and smoking are two popular ways to do it, but seriously with correct handling and by looking after your catch you can cook them in many more elaborate ways.
Enjoy the long rod lunacy possible this winter with our annual Aussie salmon run, but also forward think about how you can improve your fish handling if you keep a few, and the end result on the dinner plate will only be better for it!