Smoking salmon again

Two Tom Pinks
The author, left, holds a pair of pink salmon while his father, Tom Sr., holds a pair of Atlantic salmon. The fish were caught in the St. Mary’s River near the Cloverland Electric Company power plant. (Photo courtesy of Tom Pink)

At my wedding reception in 1987, I heard several people – some who had traveled far – say they almost didn’t make it to the church on time.

It wasn’t because they were stuck in traffic or left home late. It was because they were having so much fun catching pink salmon off the downtown docks that they didn’t want to quit.

Who could blame them? In the mid- to late-1980s and early 1990s, the St. Mary’s River pink salmon fishery was phenomenal. It still is fantastic, but the shore fishing isn’t quite as easy as it was back then. These days, fishing from a boat, or wading in the St. Mary’s rapids or Lake Huron and Lake Superior tributaries, produces better results.

Days before the wedding, I told my dad that the anglers who were doing best were using pink-colored flashy spoons that they jigged through the schools of fish, rather than just casting and retrieving. With that intel, Dad tied some lures using Lake-St.-Clair-meets-Lake-Superior technology. He took jig heads that he normally would use for walleye, painted them with pink nail polish, and instead of threading soft-body tails onto the jigs, he tied tufts of Christmas tree tinsel on them.

The combination may sound crazy, but the flashy results spoke for themselves, so much so that after Dad caught his limit, he was kept busy building his custom jigs for fellow fishermen right there on the dock and he sold them as quickly as he could tie them, for a buck apiece. We all had a lot of fun and Dad and his buddies went home with coolers full of pink salmon that had been smoked by a local resident for – wait for it – a buck apiece.

More than 30 years later, we got into pink salmon again, but this time, we fished with a guide with a ton of experience and a knack for tying flies that proved to be irresistible not only to pink salmon, but Atlantic salmon, too. Jason Carstens of True North Guide Service really knows his stuff and I was amazed at how he matched the nymphs with what the fish were eating.

For a little while, Dad tried his ol’ tinsel-tail jig for old time’s sake, but he quickly switched over to one of Jason’s secret weapons. A few hours later, we went home with a dozen pink salmon – having released several – as well as a beautiful rainbow trout and two Atlantic salmon, both caught by Dad – his first and second.

The excursion left an impression on me in so many ways. First, it never ceases to amaze me that you can pull a hard-fighting, acrobatic fish into the boat using just a tiny No. 12 to 14 hook. Also, there is no substitution for fishing with someone who has put the time in and gained a lot of knowledge about the fishery. I’ve been relying on fishermen smarter than I am since I settled in Sault Ste. Marie 40 years ago.

Jason’s enthusiasm and joy for being outside is contagious. I’ve never been into sports, but I know a good coach when I see one. I’ve known Jason since he was a college student, and he has always been generous with his time, knowledge and equipment. Dad and I were really grateful to be able to spend time on his boat.

I haven’t run a smoker since I gave mine away to another student several years ago, but I borrowed one from a buddy for this batch of pinks. We filleted the Atlantics and used Jason’s brine recipe to prepare them for the grill later in the week. All of the fish were delicious. Outstanding. I ate the last of the smoked stuff on scrambled eggs the other day.

If you’re in the Soo and need to hire a fishing guide, check out Jason’s photos and info on Facebook at True North Guide Service, on Instagram @truenorthguidefishing, or write

Categories: Blog Content, Michigan – Tom Pink

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