There is something nostalgic about the aroma of fish fresh from the smoker, still warm and juicy when broken apart; for most of us have either smoked our own catch or have relatives or friends who do it for them.

In a world where convenience has overtaken preserving our own fruits, fish or meat, the home smoker still remains a valued back yard icon.

Of course the smoking of food was developed as a means of preserving large catches of meat or fish in the days when food was scarce and refrigeration was hundreds of years away. For native peoples such as the Inuit in Arctic Canada and the American Indian tribes of the Pacific north-west, fish was their staple diet.

Every year millions of salmon would arrive, like clockwork, in the Columbia River system in the greatest migration of anadromous fish — those living in both fresh and salt water — the world has seen.

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The river runs for 2000 kilometres and its drainage basin is roughly the size of France, extending into seven US states and a Canadian province. The Inuit relied on runs of spawning char, a cousin of trout and salmon, which they caught and preserved. Historic fish smoking removed all moisture, leaving a tough, leathery slab of dried fish which would keep for long periods.

Today, smoking is more of a culinary process than one for preservation. It can be a simple process, requiring only a source of smoke and a method of containing it. This could be as simple as the old 44-gallon drum with a sack over the top or a cabinet such as a clothes drier converted to hold racks.

Heat and smoke can be created with an electric frying pan holding sawdust or a gas ring with a metal pot or old pan; or simply a small fire.

More elaborate structures are built for commercial operations, and serious smokers of fish operate a 24-hour process.

It starts with the fillets of fish like trout or salmon or whole fish like snapper split open and soaked for several hours in a brine solution of salt and brown sugar.

Aficionados maintain salt should be the common variety, not iodised. This process sucks out much of the moisture from the flesh, which is then hung up to dry. A meat safe in a cool, sheltered place is ideal for this.

The bones can be removed from fillets by running a knife under the rib bones and lifting them off, then pulling out the pin bones with tweezers. The fish are then hung in the smoker with wires pushed through the fillets from side to side.

A fire provides heat and smoke, and should be damped down with green branches or sawdust to avoid cooking the fish. An air-tight door ensures the fire just smoulders, but all smokers should have an adjustable vent in the roof to allow smoke to circulate and escape. Otherwise the fish will develop a coating of tar.

Another popular system is to have the fire separated from the smoker by a short tunnel or is simply outside the door, which ensures the fish does not cook.

Fish which has been brined, dried and cold-smoked like this will keep for weeks when shrink-wrapped.

A simpler, faster process is to smoke-cook the fish in a simple cabinet which uses gas or electricity and only takes an hour. The fish is split and covered with brown sugar and salt, and this system works well and is certainly convenient. The fish remains moist, and does not keep any longer than cooked fish. But when slabs are served on fresh bread, warm and dripping with a squeeze of lemon juice, it is hard to beat.

Like all cooking, there are some tricks which make a difference. Some people spice up their fish with a sprinkle of rum.

The wood or sawdust used makes a big difference to the flavour, and this can be anything from fruit tree branches to grape vine clippings or even sweet corn husks. Manuka sawdust is an old favourite, and is available in shops. But sawdust from pine trees should never be used because of tar in the wood, and sawdust from chainsaw operations likewise contains oil from the chain.

Bite times
Bite times are 11.25am and 11.50pm tomorrow and 12.10pm on Sunday. More fishing action can be found at GTTackle.co.nz