The one thing that I quickly learned from Oregon natives after moving here is you can’t let the weather deter you. The weather in Salem or Portland can be nice and sunny, but by the time you get to the coast an hour to the west, it can be blustery and rainy. You just have to be prepared. If the weather forecast says cloudy at the coast, chances are you’re going to get wet, so if you want to try your hand at surf or jetty fishing, you need to bring a raincoat, wear layers of sweats to keep warm, bring waterproof rainpants to wear on the outside of your jeans, and then pack an entire set of dry clothes and towels so that you can get warm after wrestling with the Old Man of the Sea and Mother Nature. You also need sturdy footware, the kind that has good traction, since you’ll be scampering about on rocks, and the type designed for getting wet. Timberland and other outdoor adventure footwear manufacturers make shoes called “river waders” that are a cross between a hiking boot and a beach sandal. They’re perfect for surf or jetty fishing.
One of my favorite spots to fish along the coast is the jetty at Garibaldi. There’s also a jetty you can fish from in Newport, but it’s more popular and packed with people on weekends. A jetty is a man-made structure that juts into the ocean, creating a channel for a bay (created by a river) to empty into the ocean. It’s usually made of huge rocks, but you’ll also find jetties made from concrete rubble. Jetties are semi-porous on the outer edges, with gaps and holes in between the huge boulders. These gaps and holes create underwater passages where all sorts of marine life thrive. Starfish, sea urchins, colonies of mussels, and fish love them.
On Sunday, I headed to Garibaldi, which is at the head of Tillamook Bay, and, armed with rain gear, fishing gear, and a bucket to keep my catch as well as the bait (in this case, sand shrimp), I climbed down the rocks at the north jetty, accessible at Barview Jetty Park. On this day, the winds were blustery and the ocean rough. I was the only one fishing on the jetty. There were other cars parked at the jetty…people just there to watch the Old Man of the Sea hurl his fury at the rocks. They probably thought, This guy is really crazy. No wonder there’s a Coast Guard lookout tower on the jetty…just in case someone gets washed into the ocean or a boat goes down in the channel.
A friend of mine in the office, an old hand at surf fishing, gave me some pointers on surf fishing and fishing off jetties. It’s hard to tell when you have a bite, since the waves are tugging at your line. The trick is paying close attention. Waves come and go in cycles, so you will feel a pull on the line whenever the water moves back toward the ocean after a wave crashes on the jetty. When a fish bites, you will feel a pull on your rod that doesn’t fit this pattern of tug-and-slack from wave action. Depending on what kind of fish you’ve hooked, it will either be a light tug or a yank. Fishing on this jetty, I’ve caught black rockfish (a yank), and cabezone and kelp greenling (both tug the rod). The first time Charles came fishing with me at Garibaldi, he hauled in a wolf eel. I don’t know if it was a tug or a yank on his rod; we were just both screaming at the creature once he hauled it ashore. It was the ugliest sea creature I’ve ever seen, although a cabezone is a close second. The eel had teeth so ferocious-looking that I didn’t even bother to remove the hook with my needle-nose pliers; I just cut the line. I did not want to get my gloved fingers anywhere near those teeth.
Dry and safe back at home, I cleaned my catch and prepared it for the freezer in Ziploc bags. Cabezone do not have scales. They’re slimy, ugly suckers that will require you to fillet and skin them. Be brave and wear latex gloves and use a very sharp, straight-edged knife, not a curved boning knife. Place the fish on its side, put the knife immediately behind its gill opening/side fin and cut down, stopping at the spine. Then turn the blade toward the tail and, holding the fish by the head with one hand, pull the knife down the spine to the tail but stop just shy of the tail. Flip the fillet meat back. The skin will still be attached to the fillet and the tail. Now hold onto the body of the fish close to the tail with one hand and run the knife as close as possible to the skin until you’ve completely freed the fillet. Repeat on the other side. The flesh of cabezone is delicate, sweet and flaky when cooked. It’s best for baking.
Black rockfish have scales, so you’ll want to gut the fish and then remove the scales by running a straight blade in short strokes from the tail toward the head. The scales will fly off the fish. If you have a deep sink in your laundry room, this is the best place to work, as the scales will fly in every direction and the deep sides of the sink will help contain them and keep them from flying onto your windows, countertops, cabinets, windowsills, floors. You name it, I’ve gotten scales on it. I think I’ve even gotten scales on my poor pooch, Mikki, who is usually seated at my feet whenever I’m in the kitchen, waiting patiently for something edible to fall to the floor. Needless to say, after the first time I cleaned fish at the kitchen sink, I now ALWAYS clean fish in the laundry room sink. You can freeze black rockfish whole after you’ve scaled and gutted them. This is a firm-fleshed fish that’s similar to red snapper and will stand up to being cooked whole: fried, roasted, whatever. You can also skin and fillet them if you prefer. But you should do it before you freeze it. You don’t want to thaw a whole fish and then try to fillet and skin it.
Kelp greenling also have scales. You won’t want to cook these guys whole, though. Better scale, fillet and skin. The flesh is delicate, sweet and flaky.
All three fish freeze well in Ziploc bags.
One of my favorite things to do with all three fish is to bake them en papillote, a French technique of encasing meat or fish in parchment paper and baking. You’ll find that the fish stays moist this way. Just add aromatics like shallots, olive oil, herbs, salt and pepper, white wine or soy sauce, etc. Here’s one of my favorite recipes.
Oregon Rockfish with Fennel, Ginger and Shallots en papillote
- 4 rockfish fillets
- salt and pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml.) olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped or pressed through a garlic press
- 1 tablepoon (15 ml.) chopped cilantro
- A piece of ginger about 1-inch (2.5 cm.) square, julienned (cut into thin strips)
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml.) soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml.) mirin (rice wine)
- The juice of 2 oranges
- 1 shallot thinly sliced
- 1 medium fennel bulb, very thinly sliced
In a small measuring cup, mix soy sauce, orange juice and olive oil well, and set aside. For each fillet of fish, cut a piece of parchment paper into the shape of a heart by folding a square sheet in half and then cutting out half of a heart shape. Open up the heart and place the fish up against the fold on one of the halves of the heart. If your fillet is too big to be neatly contained in the parchment, cut the fillet in half and overlap the pieces. Spread a few slices of the fennel bulb, shallots and ginger atop the fish. Season with salt and pepper, then drizzle about a tablespoon or two of the liquid mixture over the fillets. Top with some chopped cilantro, then close the parchment heart by folding the other half back over the fish. To seal, begin at the top of the heart, fold over a small piece, move to the right and fold over the next piece so that it holds down the first fold. Keep moving to the right, fold after fold, until you’ve worked all the way around the heart to the tip. Tuck the tip under the parchment.
Preheat the oven to 350 ºF (177 ºC) and place the fish en papillote on a baking tray and then into the hot oven. The fish will cook in the sealed parchment and the liquids will be sealed in with the fish, infusing the fish with the flavors of the liquid and aromatic herbs. C’est magnifique!
After 15 minutes the fish will be cooked and ready to serve. Just place each parchment package on a dish, and your dinner guests can slice open the wonderful package and enjoy!
For this dish, I’d recommend a slightly sweet white wine like an Oregon Riesling, Gewürztraminer, or Grüner Veltliner. Tonight we had Airlie Winery’s Seven, a blend of Müller Thurgau, Riesling, Pinot gris, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot blanc and Muscat. A little piece of heaven from Oregon to you.