Pacific Eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus)
Smokehouse Diary: 4 lbs. of fresh, whole eulachon soaked overnight in brine (I just use the store-bought trout-salmon brine that works pretty well)—and smoke over hickory wood for 5 hours. (Note: depending on the type of smoker, and whether one likes light or heavily smoked foods, times and preferences may vary.)
The phone rang. It was the clerk from the market calling to let us know that their 100-pound shipment of eulachon had arrived. We’d been on a waiting list for almost three weeks. “How many pounds would you like?” the clerk asked. Not sure how many pounds I should order, I said, “Give me six pounds.” “OK,” she said, “your order is reserved, but you’ll have to pick it up by the end of the day or I’ll have to put it in the case to sell.” “No problem,” I said, “and thank you.”
Chris picked up the order that evening on his way home from work that saved me an hour’s drive. Knowing my love for eulachon, he surprised me with eight pounds instead of six (although ten would have been better). Nevertheless, eight pounds would do just fine, and I was lucky to have that, since eulachon is very limited, and not always available. Unwrapping the white butchers’ paper was like opening a gift, and the eulachon were quickly divided—four pounds for soaking in brine overnight for the electric smoker in the morning, two pounds for the dinner table, and the last two pounds for the freezer for another day. Knowing I should have ordered more, I called the market two days later only to learn that their entire shipment had sold out.
February is the start of eulachon season that triggers memories of my childhood; time spent along the banks of the lower Sandy River with my parents and brother near the flank of Broughton Bluff (Lewis and Clark State Park) part of Chamberlain Hill—a volcanic vent of the 1 to 2 million-year-old Boring Lava Field.
The eulachon years, as I like to remember them, took place during the 1970s, a time of disco music, polyester shirts, bell-bottom pants, rotary telephones, and when regular gasoline was $0.36 a gallon. It was also a decade of good eulachon returns. When the fish had spent a life at sea (three to five years), they returned to the Sandy River to spawn in great numbers. Their return was a much-anticipated time, an event enjoyed by many families, including ours. In the days leading up to the big event, Dad would look over his gear, which was a simple outfit of a couple of pairs of gloves, a long-handled dip net, two 5-gallon buckets, and a pair of knee-high rubber boots all neatly stored in a corner of the garage.
Dad kept close tabs on the eulachon reports from friends. When the big day finally arrived, we piled in our brown Chevy Nova, along with fishing gear and the family picnic basket, and headed east towards the Columbia River Gorge. Thirty minutes later, we were among dozens of other families along the riverbank to take part in the eulachon harvest.
The Sandy River, a.k.a “Quicksand River”—a name given by young explorers Lewis and Clark because of the rivers shifting sands, is a river that is always changing—setting new courses, carving out new channels, and claiming more riverbank. With glacial-fed waters, powerful currents, shifting sands, and having claimed dozens of lives, makes it Oregon’s most notorious river. We walked a short distance upriver across the sandy beach where we found a suitable spot near a grove of black cottonwoods (Populus balsamifera [trichocarpa]). The air that day was crisp, as it usually is in late winter, accompanied by a stiff breeze (also typical) that put color in our cheeks. Mom spread the blanket on the sand, and set up the camp chairs—the wood kind with green canvas seats. We kids were told to go play, to stay close, and not get our feet wet. While we didn’t stray far, we couldn’t help wading up to our ankles to catch eulachon with our hands. So thick were the schools of fish that the air smelled of them, and their scent mixed with the sweet aroma of ripening leaf buds of the cottonwood trees.
There was much excitement on and off the river. Gulls circled and cried overhead. On the river, small boats anchored in the deepest channels where the men would dip long-handled nets as far as they could reach. When brought to the surface, they could barely raise them over the gunnels. Off the river, people of all ages gathered along both sides of the riverbank, wading and dipping their nets. Mom gave the lunch call, and after a brief scolding for getting our feet wet, we sat down to a feast of ham sandwiches, cheese slices, potato chips, dill pickles, and Mom’s delicious potato salad. All of those goodies washed down with thermoses of hot coffee for the adults and cold sodas for us kids. Food never tasted so good!
After lunch, it was time to fish. My brother and I returned to the shallows to catch them with our hands, while Dad, with dip net and buckets, went down to the river and waded carefully, as far as he dared before the river swamped his boots. With his net, he made a slow, almost 360-degree sweep with the current. When the net surfaced, it bulged with wriggling fish. So heavy was it, that Dad could barely lift it from the water. Having so much fun, time flew, and before we knew it, the buckets were full weighing nearly forty pounds each! Much to my disappointment, it was time to stop for the day, and it was a grueling walk back to the car with eighty pounds of eulachon in tow. That evening we split our catch with our Italian neighbor who accepted the gift most graciously. For many evenings thereafter, we dined on eulachon dusted with flour, and slowly fried in butter until golden brown and crisp.
The Pacific eulachon or “oolichan” is a word derived from the Chinook Language—a name that means “rich fish of the Pacific.” A species of smelt, the eulachon is an anadromous fish that inhabits the Pacific from the southeastern Bering Sea to northern California. To indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Coast, the Eulachon was, and still is, an important fish. For thousands of years, coastal tribes harvested the eulachon for food that was prepared fresh, salted, dried, smoked, or frozen for later use. Eulachon oil was highly prized. To get the oil involved a lengthy process. Fresh fish were put into *“Stink Boxes”—large wooden boxes with dirt bottoms where the fish are covered and left to rot. When ready, the fish were boiled, and the oil separated.
Eulachon oil was used in different ways as a preservative and butter-like condiment. It was also included in potlatch “gift-giving” ceremonies. High in vitamins A, E, K, and Omega 3, not only was the oil nutritious, but also used for medicine to treat a sore throat, and for a chest rub to treat whooping cough. Some tribes used the oil for tanning hides. Its value was great, and brought many Indian families wealth; even the trails that it was transported became known as “grease trails.”
Lewis and Clark first learned of the eulachon in 1806, a species unfamiliar to them and what they compared to herring, and mistook for anchovy. In late February, Clark wrote *“. . . a species of small fish which now begin to run, and are taken in great quantities in the Columbia R. about 40 miles above us by means of skimming or scooping nets . . . I find them best when cooked in Indian style, which is by roasting a number of them together on a spit without any previous preparation whatever. they are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted, even more delicate and lussious than the white fish of the lakes . . .” Lewis and Clark also called them “candle fish.” Clark mentioned *“. . . when dried and a wick drawn through the body they may be used as candles.” In the early 1900s, English slang corrupted the word “oolichan,” and the fish were called “hooligan.” Today, Pacific eulachon is called Columbia River smelt, but often this name is shortened, and the fish is simply called smelt.
After spending life at sea, Pacific eulachon return to freshwater to spawn, in this instance, the Columbia River that separates Oregon and Washington. Once entering the Columbia, they make their journey upriver to their home water tributaries, which include the Cowlitz River in Washington, and the Sandy River in Oregon. By the time the eulachon reach the lower Sandy River, they will have traveled more than 100 miles.
The fate of the Pacific eulachon is uncertain. Some conclude that the historic returns to the lower Sandy River are extinct. Loss of habitat is undoubtedly a cause of their decline, and restoration efforts are being made. While not as publicized as salmon, it would be a tragedy to lose such a fine fish as the Pacific eulachon. It is my hope that one day their numbers will return just as they did during the eulachon years of my childhood.
🌿Exciting Eulachon Update! On March 24, 2013, after more than a decade, the eulachon has returned to spawn in the lower Sandy River. They’ve arrived en masse, numbering in the millions; a great school of fish that stretches twenty miles long! The media reports that the eulachon is listed as endangered, but this is simply not true. Like salmon and steelhead, the eulachon was listed as threatened in March 2010 under the Endangered Species Act where its status remains today. Although its threatened status is the same as salmon and steelhead, which are still fishable, it is illegal to harvest eulachon at this time. This ridiculous double standard is because most anglers do not regard eulachon that are caught with dip nets instead of hooks, as desirable sport fish. So while depleting runs of salmon and steelhead continues, yet can still be fished, the eulachon is off-limits.
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