A few nights ago, I dreamed that I was fly-fishing for steelhead in a river of potato leek soup. It would be reasonable to conclude that said dream was the result of too much garlic in the spaghetti sauce, but it would take an alarming amount of the stinking rose to affect my dreams thusly, given the copious amounts of it that I consume on a daily basis, usually to no discernable effect on my evening chimeras.
More likely, this dream was due to my thoughts turning, as they will, to an upcoming excursion with the Birddog. As my partner in crime – my codelincuente, if you will – the Birddog accompanied me about ten years ago on a Missouri River trout-fishing trip in Montana in early October. Our luck holding as per usual, it snowed eight inches the night we arrived in Craig and temps plunged into the single digits. Did I mention that this was early October?
Amazingly, a few fish took pity on us and impaled themselves on our drowned nymph lures (pheasant tails and zebra midges, if you must know) and we were… um… hooked. Over the next few visits to The Mo (as the locals call it) we caught on to the game, finally netting over a hundred trout between us in two days of angling (no whities counted; all rainbows and browns caught and released). These days, of course, we tie one hand behind our backs and fish only with floating dry flies, usually stalking visible, feeding fish. It bears noting that our efforts are amply enhanced by the services of guides like (Big) Dan Kelly and (Captain) Mike Guerin.
Somewhere down the tracks, our fishing trips started to morph. Inspired by the likes of Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham, Tom McGuane, Richard Brautigan, and Guy de la Valdene, we began to cook our own dinners and pack our own shore lunches. Craig, Montana, boasts a decent restaurant that approaches fine dining, called Izaak’s (of Walton fame). There you can get fried walleye, bison steak, rib-eyes, double-wide pork chops, and pillowy ravioli. The drinks are strong and the waitresses are co-eds on leave from one of the local colleges (by local, I mean within 150 miles). Despite the existence of this perfectly serviceable eating establishment, the siren song of the cabin kitchen beckoned, and we began to book lodgings with a keen eye to cooking for ourselves.
If memory serves (and it does so decreasingly), our first attempt at fly-camp cooking was in Maupin, Oregon, where we were chasing the salmon fly hatch on the famed Deschutes River. Due mostly to ineptitude, we had little luck with jungle fishing for the rainbows known locally as redsides, but the trip was made memorable by the nice batch of linguine vongole I whipped up on a Coleman stove. (Note to self: don’t set up a propane-fired camp stove on a plastic table ever again.) After this first al fresco attempt at fine dining, we realized that our culinary efforts would be better served with modern conveniences like stoves and refrigerators, not to mention cabinets stocked with pots, pans, cutting boards, and the like. Knives are another matter: when not subjected to the inspections of our fine TSA agents, I bring my own cutlery (classic Wüsthof blades suit me fine).
Over the years, our cooking efforts have ramped up considerably. We’ve had BBQ ribs with home-brewed ancho chili sauce; T-bones and filet mignon smothered with compound butter; venison; pork shoulder braised several hours in tomatillo sauce; Flintstone-esque pork chops; panko-crusted pan-fried walleye; grilled quail painted with reduced balsamic vinegar; pasta with hot Italian sausage… you know, the usual. Last year’s Umpqua trip featured wood duck breasts wrapped in prosciutto and pan fried to medium rare, then finished with a honey and sherry vinegar sauce in the Italian style of sweet and sour.
The side dish to the wood duck breast was equal to the main: Thomas Keller’s leek bread pudding. It is a concoction at once airy and spectacularly rich, the main ingredients being bread, leeks, cream, and eggs. Once you have had this so-called “side dish,” you will never go back to common bread dressing again. You can thank me next Thanksgiving.
Speaking of sides, they are by no means at the margins of our meals. We often invest significant energy and effort into accompaniments like heavily-garlicked creamy polenta, mashed Yukon Gold potatoes studded with chanterelle mushrooms, sautéed chard, creamed spinach, salads made in the Greek-style, and sautéed French radishes. Desserts are an afterthought – think Pepperidge Farm cookies dunked in Laphroig, a peaty, smoky Scotch from the Isle of Islay.
I would be remiss not to mention the shore lunches, which by necessity are more casual dining experiences, eaten standing up and without plates or cutlery. Sandwiches fit this bill nicely. Most guides are understandably less than enthused about putting together lunches in addition to their considerable catalog of professional chores, many of which are undertaken at 4:00 in the morning. Better that they focus on the fishing and let us take care of the eating. Our waterside repasts often include my version of the muffaletta sandwich, made famous by the Central Grocery in New Orleans. This sandwich stacks ham, salami, and mortadella meats with provolone and a spread made of both green and black olives. My other sammie specialty is roast beef piled high with thick slabs of red onion and sliced pickles. These have received the fishing-guide equivalent of a Michelin star. Last summer we went south of the border and made tacos, wrapping leftover tomatillo-braised shredded pork in soft tortillas with homemade pico de gallo. An ice-cold bottle of French roséfrom Provence met its match. A speckled brown trout was taken from the very next riffle – the perfect dessert.
I’m not sure why I dreamed about fishing in potato leek soup the other night, as this dish is not on the menu for our upcoming trip. A Freudian therapist would no doubt have a field day with such subconscious meanderings, but I am far less interested in what the dream says about my sex life than I am about the inexplicable fact that I did not taste the soup. Too much garlic? Not enough salt? Now we’ll never know.
You might be thinking that these excursions are more about eating and less about fishing. If so, you should be disabused of that notion. The fishing here is serious, save for the goofy headgear that has become my “brand.” Last summer I hooked numerous rainbow and brown trout wearing a pith helmet of all things, an accoutrement that my Belgian work colleague admired with a single caveat: “It’s vaguely racist, though.” Tell that to Melania Trump. The winter prior, I landed a steelhead that surpassed sixteen pounds while wearing a Harris herringbone tweed flat cap. This haberdashery is a bit of tom-foolery – just trying to not take myself too seriously, a problem to which I am prone.
Angling for the leviathans we seek is serious business (hats notwithstanding), and you’d better be ready – not to mention intensely focused and “in the moment,” as they say in Buddhist circles – lest you have not only your hat handed to you, but your rod shoved up your backside. Oregon winter steelhead are the Mike Tysons of fish, back when he was still a serious boxer and not a parody. Give me a couple of words to describe them and I will hand you “mean” and “angry” for starters. These are not worm-sippers dabbling your bobber; they slash at your sunken yarn egg pattern like stream-dwelling serial killers. When the strike indicator dives, you drive that hook into the heartless mouth of the steelhead with everything you’ve got. You know in a second whether you are hung up on some sunken old-growth Douglas fir or you have hooked up with underwater thunder. If the latter, any wandering thoughts of poaching a New York strip steak with fresh herb butter to a perfect medium rare go out the window. Nope, your mind and body are now joined in a zen-like effort to bring your fish to the net. A stray thought – say of the “bikini hatch” you saw last summer floating down the river in rubber inner tubes – will leave you limp-lined and defeated.
Fly-fishing and cooking are two endeavors where “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” (as Jim McKay used to say on Wide World of Sports) are closely juxtaposed; it only makes sense to me that the two be combined. It’s amazing what a perfectly braised lamb shank – its meat falling off the bone and plonked into a bowl of creamy polenta – will do for you after your soul has been crushed by a screaming steelhead trout that snapped you off, the fish equivalent of extending you its middle finger. Maybe combine that shank with a bottle or two of Barolo and/or Barbera and you are soon sailing down Recovery Road. The moon comes up; the moon goes down. You live to fish another day.
Upon further review, it occurs to me that I might benefit by increasing the number of activities in my life that require walking the tightrope between victory and defeat. Let’s face facts: those are two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without risking the other. If you’re like me (and I know I am), you live most of your life too near the middle of the road. Doing so leaves you only dreaming of steelhead, rather than catching them. Better to rouse yourself, get on the river once in a while, and get your line in the water.
Braised Lamb Shanks (enough for two hearty eaters)
Set oven to 325 degrees.
2 good-sized, bone-in lamb shanks
Salt and pepper
Half an onion, coarsely chopped
Two large carrots, coarsely chopped
One whole head of garlic
One large can of tomatoes
Half a bottle of wine (red or white; either is good)
Two sprigs of fresh rosemary
2 cups of beef broth (homemade – so much better than store-bought)
Season the shanks with the salt and pepper and brown them in a Dutch oven. Make sure they get a good brown crust on them. Remove from the pot.
Put a little olive oil in the pot and sauté the onions and carrots. While they are sautéing, empty the tomatoes and their juice into a bowl and crush by hand, leaving them in fairly large chunks. Add the wine (white will give you a lighter sauce, red a richer one – both are good; it just depends on your mood). Bring the wine and vegetables to a rolling boil. Add the tomatoes, broth, rosemary, and thyme. Cut the head of garlic in two latitudinally, as though you were going to roast it, and add both halves to the pot. Add the lamb shanks and any meat juices that have accumulated. The shanks should be mostly submerged. If they’re not, top up the liquid with more wine and broth.
Put the pot in the oven and cook for 2 hours, checking periodically to make sure the shanks are still mostly covered. Top up with wine and broth if needed. Once the meat is falling off the bone, remove the shanks and tent them to keep them warm. Carefully skim the fat from the remaining liquid, tipping the pot to one side. Once most of the fat is off, take out the woody portions of the rosemary and thyme. Remove the garlic halves and squeeze out the garlic cloves. Mash the softened vegetables with a potato masher or the back of a large spoon. Reduce the remaining liquid until it becomes a thick sauce and serve over the lamb shanks.
I like to put some nice creamy polenta in a bowl, stick in the shank bone pointing up, and then ladle some sauce around it. This makes for a pretty dramatic presentation. As for wine, this is the time for a badass Italian like a super Tuscan or Barolo. A French Rhone would do just fine as well. After a meal like this, it’s Dream On.