Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Maybe It's Better to be Lucky than Good.

Sunday was a bad day for a lone hiker down on the Turnagin Arm. After hiking for a couple of miles, the hiker stopped to sit on a rock and have a drink of water- that's when he drew the short straw of fate and the brown bear charged. At very close range the hiker leveled his rifle and fired- killing the bear and quite probably saving his life. What caught my eye about this particular instance (aside from being a DLP shooting of a bear) is the weapon listed in the article.... an AK-74 rifle firing the 5.45x39 cartridge.  The round count was 13 with 2 of the cartridges scoring for points and hitting the bear in the head, killing it.

While most of us would agree that the AK-74 is a less than optimum weapon for bear defense, it worked in this case. I wrote some time ago about the armament among the subsistence hunters in Siberia as well as my experiences in Alaska's bush communities and among the Inupiat of the Canadian Arctic who all seem to favor small caliber, compact rifles- ballistically much like the AK-74 in this instance- and all three groups of people kill large bears (among other things) with regularity. Maybe you could factor in something else there- tremendous skill or particular savvy since these folks live their lives in the wild and are as accustomed to dealing with a polar bear as we are to heavy traffic.

But there are other outliers you find as well. When I first moved to Alaska, three young men were attacked on the Kenai Pennisula while fishing for salmon. The best armed of the group was carrying a twelve gauge shotgun and promptly jumped in the river, lost his weapon and swam for it. His buddy fired his sidearm several times- killing the bear. The weapon of choice? A Glock 9mm. Hardly confidence inspiring when you consider the 9mms abysmal reputation as a man stopper, much less effective against a coastal bear that weighed 800 pounds.

Another case last summer had a lady hiker in Denali National Park face off with a bear and kill it. She used a weapon seemingly much more powerful than a 9mm, but in the face of a bear hardly any more appropriate- a .45 Automatic. And not alone- Alaskans engage and kill bears with handguns of all types and manage to not get eaten pretty frequently. In reality though, most common pistol cartridges are hardly appropriate for killing bears at all.

On the opposite end of the spectrum you have folks who though apparently well prepared and well experienced- still get mauled. The couple a few years back on the Hula Hula River, well armed, very experienced and doing everything they could right to stay safe on their wilderness trip- were apparently mauled in their tent and killed.

Last year a moose hunter was mauled on the McLaren River- he carried and (reportedly) shot a grizzly several times with the much vaunted and highly effective .30-06. The hunter lived despite serious injuries and the bear was never recovered. Even among highly experienced bear guides, one will draw the short straw and get mauled occasionally and all of them without fail have stories of bears that soak up lead in unbelievable quantity- absorbing multiple well placed hits from .338, .375,.416 and .458 rounds without even slowing down. Some of the stories make the term "epic" an understatement.

So despite our best preparations- maybe it really is better to be lucky than good.

***Author's note- you can read about Sunday's events at Alaska Dispatch- HERE

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Halibut Tacos... or Turkey of the Sea Heads South of the Border

It's no secret that I'm a strong advocate of substituting wild game into everyday recipes. One of my favorites is Mexican food, or at the very least- Tex-Mex. One of my very favorite substitutions is quickly becoming a favorite in it's own right. Halibut tacos. Not the usual bland Seattle version which is  just stewed or steamed fish rolled into a tortilla (although it can be good) but a spicier version for a more adventuresome palate.

There are a bunch of recipes out there and many of them are good, but here's one of my favorites.

1 lb of halibut chunks (substitute any mild white fish if you wish)
3-4 flour tortillas ( I like burrito size to maximize the fish to flour ratio, but any will work)
3 cups cornflake crumbs
2-3 Tsp of chili powder and spices (to taste)
2 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup shredded Monterey or Pepper Jack cheese
1 small carrot
2 tsp of ranch dressing

Take a filet of halibut (roughly a pound or so) and cut into chucks about 1.5" square. Halibut cheeks are perfect if you have some but any halibut pieces will do. This recipe is ideal for the big halibut whose flakes are frequently too large to make a more traditional dish. With your fish in chunks take a bowl and fill it with cornflake crumbs- yep, pulverized cornflakes. Season it o taste with chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, lemon pepper and a dash or two of salt. Remember, halibut has a very mild flavor and is easily overpowered so take it easy until you figure it out.

Take a separate bowl and fill it with a cup of buttermilk, or if you're running low on buttermilk take regular milk and add a shot of lemon or lime juice to clabber. One of my favorite variations is to give the milk a healthy shot of Sriracha Hot Sauce. Take the halibut pieces and submerge in the milk and then dredge in the corn flake crumbs. Place them on a lightly greased baking sheet or casserole dish and pop them in the oven at 350 for about 20-25 minutes until cooked through. Many people consider overcooking halibut a mortal sin but in this preparation a little firmer texture won't hurt a thing.

While that cooks up you'll want to shred a small head of cabbage with a small carrot if you like. Take the tortillas and steam lightly or microwave for 10 seconds to soften. When the fish is done, layer in several pieces on the tortilla and top with some of the shredded cabbage. Most recipes call for coleslaw dressing at this point but I think it's frequently either too sweet or too vinegary and overpowers the fish. To balance the flavors I use a teaspoon or two of ranch dressing and a sprinkle of shredded pepper jack or monterey jack cheese.

You can do an endless variation depending on your taste- some goods ones are banana or tamed jalepenos, sweet corn kernels, tomatoes or black beans. Just remember, halibut is the centerpiece of this dish- not just protein filler.  For the very adventuresome you can roll up ceviche- that true equatorial Mexican dish that features fish "cooked" in citrus acid. I personally don't do halibut ceviche because the acid won't kill the parasites common in northern flatfish but if you had some truly deep frozen sushi grade halibut you could try it out but it's generally a treat on it's on.

Roll it up burrito style or simply folded and filled and enjoy with a side of Spanish rice.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Priorities.... or Fishing for Time.

Grief is an odd thing, sometimes you can grieve for times past at the expense of days present without even realizing it. That is the way it was with me this year. On the third anniversary of my father's passing I must admit I was quite melancholy, doing various chores and tasks while in a deep funk. The annual fishing trip I've tried to plan in honor of my father was delayed this year until early August. No fault of anyone- just the way the schedule happened.

It was while I was checking the resistance in the oven element with a multimeter that I had something of an epiphany. My father, while gone from this mortal coil in body, was still very much present in the influence he had on me. Not just in the practical skills that he taught me- things like how to read a multimeter to effect simple repairs, how to ride a motorcycle, how to swim; how to fish but in things so simple as spending time in the field or time around the house and how to appreciate the world around me. It is only as an adult that I realize how valuable time actually is and as a successful business owner what those weekend camping trips or deep sea fishing expeditions cost him in terms of economic opportunity.

And so it came to pass that I turned my grief of the past toward my present and gathered up my own son and pushing back the sadness took the old canoe and strapped it to the top of my even older jeep and headed for a small body of water just a few miles up the road. As far as fishing goes it's just stocked rainbows in a lake perhaps a 1/2 mile wide by some 3/4 mile long. Hardly enough to get a serious angler's blood pressure to even rise.

We plopped the small canoe in the water and paddled out about halfway across to where we saw the most tell tale ripples of fish picking flying insects from the surface. We could see that the most action occurred along the boundary of a deep cold hole and a weed bed simply choked with lily pads- food and protection. I rigged Evan's ultralight rod, a whisper of a thing really, with 3 lb test mono and the most deadly thing in my rudimentary tackle box- A simple 1/16oz silver spoon with a small hook. I placed a bobber about 3' above it with enough weight to actually cast it. Given the small size of the stocked rainbows when weighed against the small stature of the rod they ought to feel like Leviathan on the end of the line should we be so lucky to hook one.

I let him let fly and then ever so slowly paddled backward. In effect a sort of poor man's trolling motor. I could imagine what the spoon would look like- small reflective object undulating in the sunlight to all those fish hiding in the weed beds all the while Evan watching the tell-tale bobber on the surface with all the attentiveness a twelve year old could muster.

We were rewarded in less than 60 seconds as a small Rainbow rocketed from the bottom and hit the spoon so hard he projected out of the water with the spoon in his mouth. Evan exclaimed with delight as the fish hit the end of the line and the featherweight rod bent near double. After a few moments of respectable fight we had the fish in the boat- a 12" Rainbow trout. Not the biggest fish nor the most exciting through adult eyes but to a tweener boy it was positively electric.

We threw the line back in the water and continued our path along the edge of the weed bed and within just a few minutes another fish fell for the trick of refracted light off chromed steel. A few second's fight and the fish managed to free himself from the hook. Not having his enthusiasm diminished, the lure arced through the air again and within a couple of seconds the white bobber disappeared and the miniature drag reel screamed again as the trout took line. Another minute's fight and another fish went into our bag, this one significantly larger than the first.

And so it went for the next hour, trolling the weed bed and hooking up to Rainbows, the action was hot and non stop. We landed several- released a few, kept a few and lost more. As the action slacked off we decided to troll over the deep hole in the middle of the lake. We were about 1/3 of the way across when a much bigger fish hit the lure. It was immediately apparent that this fish far outclassed the others and, unfortunately, Evan's rod. For his part, Evan fought the fish as well as could be expected- the slender reed of fiberglass groaned and the dragged screamed as the fish took line. Evan managed to turn the fish and take in line at a furious rate and just when I thought the battle had swung in our favor the fish breached and leapt from the water. I'll be accused of exaggeration, but no matter, the fish was a big Rainbow, a surviving stocked trout that was at least 18" long and five or six times heavier and stronger than anything else we'd landed that day.

It was too good to be true and as the fish spied the boat he turned and with a massive burst of energy he ran. Evan gave a mighty jerk and the ephemeral rod shattered. Undeterred, Evan  kept reeling but the line suddenly went slack.  The line had wrapped around a clump of weeds as the fish ran for cover and the knot- which had held through all the action that day- pulled through.

The fish and our spoon....gone.

We both hooted and laughed about the big fish that Evan nicknamed "Chunk" and reflected on the evening's fishing and what we'd do with the collection of rainbows in the bottom of the boat. A great day on the water to be sure- just a small local lake and a bunch of small, hungry fish and an energetic young angler with a wide smile on his face perched between the oversize life vest and the wide brim of his hat. Despite all of my adventuresome trips on the water in pursuit of piscatorial passions, it was one of my best days on the water.

My rod was still broken down in the bottom of the boat.

I'd never even wet the line.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Proper Manipulation of the Bolt Action Rifle

I recently was afforded an invitation to review a set of short instructional videos about the manipulation of a hunting rifle. I was greatly humbled by the opportunity and the videos themselves had fairly good production value for a couple of enthusiasts producing them for You Tube. After a few moments I realized that I would have to greatly upset my new acquaintance. Despite having loads of enthusiasm and a modicum of military training- they were doing it wrong.

Dear reader- (in the gentlest voice possible)- if the butt of the rifle leaves your shoulder when manipulating the action....you are doing it wrong. After a brief review of several other videos by different individuals the error was far more common than I'd like to believe and often demonstrated by professional folks who ought to really know better. I will admit- I have on occasion been so sloppy despite both knowing and training better.

In thinking back I realize that the grey in my beard must mean I am slowly fossilizing as well as the fact many new shooters view the bolt action rifle as an archaic device. In one of the "instructional" videos the host described one of the many advantages of the "modern sporting rifle" as being the butt could stay on the shoulder throughout the firing and reloading cycle. Hogwash.

In the ye olde days when Uncle Sam equipped millions of young men with the newest turnbolt rifle if you dropped the butt from your shoulder to work the bolt the drill instructor would quite likely walk up behind you and soundly crack you on your steel pot helmet with his swagger stick. You'd not be apt to make that mistake again. In all fairness, US soldiers haven't trained the bolt action rifle in well over half a century and the men trained under such tutelage are becoming rare birds in the field themselves. Finding serious rifle instruction for the bolt rifle is also difficult if one excepts the various "sniper" and "long range shooting" courses.

The end result is a lot of self taught enthusiasts teaching others to do it wrong. Not to diminish their contribution and enthusiasm for the armed arts but the operation of the bolt action should be this:

From the firing position:
1. Drop your right hand a few inches below the action.
2. Bring your hand, palm up sharply into the bottom of the bolt and pull back smartly until the bolt smacks the bolt stop.
3. Reverse your palm and push forward until the bolt's forward movement stops, allow the momentum of your arm to carry the bolt into the downward final position.
4. Since your hand will be palm rear, simply grasp the grip and extend your finger to the trigger.

You can do all the above actions without ever moving your left hand supporting the fore end or dropping the butt from your shoulder. With a little practice you can get surprisingly fast and reliable cycling of the action and never let your eye or the sights wander from the target.

The primary advantage of doing this is that you can keep your eyes downrange...pretty important in either the hunting field or the battlefield.

The other most common mistakes with a bolt gun are as follows:
1. Not working the bolt vigorously enough. Don't be that guy- work it like you mean it.
2. Getting your thumb mashed between the bolt handle and the ocular bell of the scope. I'm not overly picky about the thumb but you really don't need it with a bit of practice.
3. Looking at the action and not at the target.

Here is one of the few videos I found where they demonstrate doing it right. Thanks Ryan Gresham!

This is something that every discerning rifleman ought to practice every time they grab the rifle....dry fire practice and on the range.

Remember amateurs practice until they can do it right. Professionals practice until they can't do it wrong.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Fever

It is that time of year again... that time between the Red Salmon run and the start of hunting season. It's got to be one of my favorite times despite being so busy.  Just finished processing salmon, working down a long list of household chores, prepping for hunting season, taking the time for the occasional camping trip or cookout. Good thing the midnight sun gives up plenty of daylight- I need every minute I can get.

My family just finished putting together our tags for the upcoming hunting season- we've never taken as  many tags before and filling them all will be a lot of exciting, hard work. My son graduated his Hunter's Education course and has graduated to full fledged hunting participant this year- complete with his own tags. I love the expectation and planning almost as much as the hunt itself. The "fever" as I've come to think of it.

And I've got plenty of expectation and planning in the coming months. On the blogging front lots of exciting things are happening- a couple of pro deals in the works from two companies whose products I've come to use and respect very much, a teaching opportunity with BOW, the upcoming hunting season and something I can't wait to write about next year- a trip of a lifetime I've dreamed about for years.

Stayed tuned folks- it's going to get good.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Keeping the Catch... Home Canning Smoked Salmon

One of my longer time readers sent me a note about preserving my catch for future consumption and how one freezes and stores the amount of salmon I take on an annual basis citing concerns of freezer burn. The answer may surprise some people, but freezing is really a pretty poor way of storing fish in general since it is easily damaged by "freezer burn". I store relatively little salmon in the freezer; that valuable space is reserved for halibut and red meats- but rather rely on "canning" to keep my catch shelf stable. For those unfamiliar with the process, I'll explain it below.

As a disclaimer- home canning isn't the popular activity it once was and as a result many people are completely unfamiliar with the science at work behind it. Home canning is a very safe (good enough for your Grandma) when done properly and can yield excellent results. Done poorly, it can be both a hazard to your personal safety (heat, steam, pressure, etc.) or your food safety (botulism, food poisoning, etc.)- the solution is knowledge and research before you undertake it. I recommend two sources without hesitation; the standard "Ball Blue Book" and the late, wonderful,  Carla Emery's "Encyclopedia of Country Living". No respectable household is complete without either of these references whether you live in the country or not. Recipes and techniques found on the nebulous ether of the Internet (including mine) should be regarded as suspect until you see it in print from a recognized authority on the subject. As a safety note- use care in performing any of the following, we are dealing with heat, hot surfaces, hot materials and live steam. Safety glasses and a clean pair of gloves might not be a bad idea. Be safe and when in doubt- stop and figure out what's going on.

Canning is all about sterilization and killing the wee beasties that live on nearly everything so take your empty jars and wash them in hot water and dish soap or an automatic dishwasher. If you use the dishwasher the "heat dry" feature is great since it leaves you with a hot, dry, clean jar. Once your jars are clean- put them in the oven on "low" or about 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Take the lids (brand new! never re-use a lid) and put them in a small pot on the stove top and simmer them in water. You're looking to do several things here- the heat in the oven will keep the jars relatively sterile and the near boiling water will sterilize the lids and soften the seal on the underside. Remember- we're killing bacteria here, cleanliness is next to Godliness. Now that we have clean jars and sterile lids... on to the fish.

You can start with fresh, smoked, or cooked salmon but since I greatly prefer the flavor of smoked salmon I'll start there. I wrote a piece on smoking salmon in the past and the possibilities of cures, brines   and additions to the basic recipe are limited only by your imagination and Google-Fu. Hot smoking is a cooking process so the salmon is ready to eat before you can it but there is no good way to put an entire fillet into a jar. Take your fillet and remove the skin (which will separate easily from the flesh at this point) and remove any of the larger bones, such as from the rib cage. The smaller "pin bones" that are so difficult to remove can simply be left in there.... I know what you're thinking- trust me, the heat and pressure of the canning process softens and dissolves the small bones almost entirely. Commercial salmon packing doesn't address pin bones and I don't either although if you want to be OCD about it, whip out your pliers and pull them out. Put all of the flesh into a large mixing bowl and break up the larger pieces into smaller chunks with a stout wooden spoon- you should end up with something like this.

Now you're ready to jar up all that salmon. Pull a hot jar from the oven using care and a potholder or glove and set it on the counter or work surface- it's 180F so careful. I like to use a canning funnel made specifically for canning and it's purpose is two-fold- one is that it makes the filling of a jar much easier but more importantly it keeps the food off the rim of the jar. Any food (or other contaminant) that breaches the rim to seal interface will jeopardize the whole works. Simply spoon in the salmon flake into the jar and pack down slightly leaving what the canning gurus refer to as "headspace". The best way to have a disaster in a canner is to pack or fill a jar completely full. The Ball Blue Book will explain the amount of headspace needed in detail, but in general it should look something like this.

Now you need to place the lid on the jar and the handiest item ever made is a magnet on a stick- buy one, make one, but you should have one if you plan to do any canning at all. Take the magnet and fish out a single lid and let the water drip a bit from it and without touching the lid or seal or letting it touch anything else. Maneuver the lid to the jar and with a deft little motion- place it on the jar. You can dislodge the magnet by placing your index finger lightly on the lid if you have tough old hands like mine or use a clean spoon or other instrument if you don't. Here's a video...

Now take your clean threaded ring and spin it on, holding the lid securely to the jar. As a word of caution- do not tighten the ring at this point, all you want to do is tighten it until it makes contact. Take the jar and set it aside until you've finished jarring up the rest of your fish and repeat the above until you're done. I like to use the boxes the jars come in to corral all those jars.

Now you're ready to apply pressure. Place all your jars into the pressure canner according to the instructions but pay attention to the capacity from the canner maker- with most it is entirely possible to place more jars in the canner than the instructions indicate- don't do it, read the instructions since the air/steam volume is pretty important to what is going to happen next. When loaded, take a pitcher of warm water and pour it into the canner to just about the ring on the bottom layer of jars. Take the lid and inspect the seal and then place it on the canner. I have no idea what sort of canner you're using but I'll describe mine- you will have to break out the instruction manual for your particular model and read the directions but most will be similar to this.

Place your canner on your heat source- be it range top, camp stove or gas burner. As a note, in rural areas it is not unusual to find folks with outdoor kitchen areas- these are referred to as "canning kitchens" where folks prior to air conditioning could can in the late summer without heating up the house. A sensible idea when you look at the amount of processing folks in that bygone era actually did.  During harvest times a family might process food for several days on a near continuous basis. Also as a note- you should be using a pressure canner for any kind of meat, including fish. There is a process for canning "high acid" foods that only uses a hot water bath but that is NOT appropriate for meat and we're NOT talking about it here.

Fire off the burner or range and apply heat to the canner. You are dealing with a pretty large volume and mass so don't expect instant results. Watch the steam vent carefully- it will start to hiss at first as the steam displaces the air inside and after a few minutes you'll see steam start to flash out. When you have a pretty steady spout of steam from the vent- start a timer. My reference states 10 minutes from the time you see a steady spout of steam (yours may vary) until all the air is purged from the canner and then drop on the weight.

As a word on processing times... every reference I've ever seen varies on processing time and pressure. Pick one and use it, but make sure you are using the time and pressure from the same reference. Some will use lower pressure and longer process times others higher pressure and shorter process and it will vary considerably based on what type of food you're canning and the size of the jar you're using. For smoked salmon in half pint jars (my preferred size), my reference calls out 110 minutes at 10PSI. The timer doesn't start until the gauge hits the pressure specified- not when you drop on the weight.

As a caution- you are now dealing with a pressure vessel, use appropriate care and keep your eye on the gauge. This isn't an activity where you can really walk off and leave it for any prolonged period of time unless you want a disaster. All modern canners have a pressure relief that will keep it from bursting but the safety valve is just like a safety on a rifle- no replacement for care and good judgement! As you're watching the pressure you will see the gauge attempt to overshoot your desired setting- back off on the heat, if it drops below- give it a little more. Try to avoid big swings in temperature or pressure   but do expect that you will need to make frequent adjustments to the heat- particularly during the first thirty minutes until things settle down.

Once the timer indicates you've processed for the desired time, and you've made sure the pressure was at the desired level- then you're done. Cooling a canner down is as important as heating one up so read your manual. First is to turn off the heat source and let the pressure come down without removing the weight. You will continue to hear boiling noise from within the canner for some time yet but don't rush it. Now that the heat is off and the pressure is decreasing, you can wander off to attend to errands or other chores or whatever. Mine takes about a half hour to cool down once the burner is turned off. Once the pressure gauge is back to 0 you can remove the weight. You should see a bit of residual steam  at this point and now the canner is safe to open. Be aware that there is a lot of hot water and vapor in the canner so use some gloves or a potholder to protect your arms and hands when you open it up.

Now you need to lift the jars, which are scorching hot, so another canning specific implement is in order- a jar lifter. It's a metal sort of clamp made to lift jars from boiling liquid. You need one. Don't try to "make do" with channel locks or pliers. You're lifting a glass jar full of boiling liquid under pressure- the right tool and appropriate level of caution as required. Once your jar is out then set it aside to cool (I like to use the jar carton again) and cover with a kitchen towel to dry up a little of the water on the jars and to prevent folks from just grabbing a scorching hot jar on instinct. As the jars cool you'll hear the lids make a distinct "snapping" noise- which means you've done it right. Let the jars cool completely, usually overnight, and inspect them.

You want to make sure the contents of the jar are under vacuum. Some of the lids have a safety button that you'll visually see is pulled downward, all will have a distinct feel of tension with no flex when pushed on with slight pressure and all should sound pretty much similar when tapped with a small object. IMPORTANT- any jar that has a different sound, or feel should be discarded or refrigerated and eaten immediately. Don't take chances in this regard.  I give the jars a quick wipe down with a kitchen towel, finish tightening the bands and write the content and date on the lid with a marker and move them to long term storage in the cupboard.

So there you have it- a brief narrative on canning smoked salmon. As a final note, if you decide to attempt this then by all means use your reference book and canner instructions. Home canning is a great way to preserve food that doesn't rely on freezer space but think about it as a science experiment in the kitchen rather than a recipe with room for interpretation on the process. Happy canning!