Searching for Salmon or Steelhead can be achieved in many different locations. The differences in the watershed can range from small to large, rural, or wild and can also be defined by the fish they hold. Some streams either have a hatchery or wild fish population, with some having a combination of both. Knowing the difference between the two can provide fresh fish for dinner or something you’ve had tucked in your backpack for 6 months.

A Wild Chinook Salmon (See adipose fin)

Some, but not all fisheries have hatchery fish clearly marked. Fish typically available for retention have the adipose fin-clipped when at the juvenile stage which then heals as an adult to identify it as a hatchery fish.

Hatchery Chinook Salmon (No Adipose Fin)

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula presents a hatchery and a wild fish population and a period when they are both abundant in the river at the same time. As the season progresses, in the area I am often found I can fish out of range where hatchery fish travel, but when guiding or fishing for myself early in the season, I am lower in the system targeting fresh fish coming into the river off the tidal push. In these areas, I’m typically below a small tributary of the main river that allows hatchery fish to travel up through once they have moved out of the main stem, but they must pass me first.

Fly fishers are not often targeting hatchery fish and are only looking to come in contact with nature for a brief moment, but if fishing an area where hatchery fish are present, you may come into contact with one. If this happens, having a hatchery fish in your net is a great surprise when dinner plans are not set. Before you return this fish to the river if planning to catch and release, make sure it does not have mandatory hatchery fish retention, which requires you to take the fish out of the system. What do you do when this tasty situation presents itself?

Step 1. Bleed your fish by cutting out the gills, which will allow your fillets or steaks to have a better taste. Quickly removing blood from your fish is essential to help preserve the quality of the meat if you are not able to put the fish on ice immediately.

Step 2. Steaks or Fillets? Determining how you will portion your catch decides which option is best for your home or a riverside campfire. Fillets are best suited for home when things are a bit more controlled. Steaks are better for a campfire, a sixer, and some fishing buddies fresh out of waders staring down at sleeping bags as the comfiest place on earth after dinner. Next up is the fun part, the cooking!!


An easy way to step up your salmon or steelhead fillets or steaks taste is a flavor-enhancing rub that stores well in your cabinet, boat, backpack, or truck without the worry of it spoiling. Brown Sugar is the main ingredient, followed by Paprika, Thyme, Rosemary, and freshly ground Salt & Pepper. What you’ll need to prepare the rub is a small metal or glass mixing bowl, measuring cups, and a whisk.

Guide Tip: If utensils are not available, you can mix ingredients in a plastic Nalgene bottle or Ball Sealable Canning Jar by shaking.

1 Tablespoon Large Granule or Freshly Ground Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Pepper
2 Heaping Tablespoons Paprika
1 Teaspoon Fresh Thyme
1 Teaspoon Fresh Rosemary
1 Cup Brown Sugar
Mix ingredients with a whisk or by shaking your container until all parts are distributed evenly.

Cooking Instructions:

When preparing on the river, layout the freshly caught fish on aluminum foil. If doing from home after your fish has thawed in the refrigerator, cut into 1/2 or 1/3 pound pieces and lay down in the same manner inside a rectangular baking dish. Get ready to use your bare hands riverside or if at home wear rubber gloves to press the rub into the meat after evenly distributed over the fish until absorbed.

Let fish sit for 15 minutes before grilling and during this time, preheat your grill or stoke your campfire to high heat and then down to medium-high coals for cooking. Your fish will need to go for no longer than 10 minutes on the grill – remember your fish will continue to cook after removed from the heat!

Place fish on the rack and cook for 4-6 minutes on each side over medium heat or very red coals with no flame until meat separates from the skin easily with a fork/stick. As your fish cooks, the brown sugar has been caramelizing on the grill, creating a sweet herb glaze. Remove from heat or place on the edge of the grill if plates are not available, crack a brew, and enjoy your catch. If vegetables are available, this rub will work as an excellent side dish seasoning for added flavor.


Recipe Summary:

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 heaping tablespoons Paprika
  • 1 teaspoon Thyme
  • 1 teaspoon Rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon large granule Kosher Salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

Mix all ingredients with a whisk until all parts are distributed evenly in the bowl. Massage dry rub onto fish. Let stand for 15 minutes. Cook on medium heat for 4-6 minutes on each side. Let stand for 1-2 minutes.

This article was written by “LPJ” Lael Paul Johnson (@flygyde), a steelhead guide based just outside of Seattle, Washington. He guides The Olympic National Park, the Queets River, Skagit, Hoh, Humptulips, Clearwater, Satsop, Wynoochee, Skykomish, Kalama, Cascade and Stillaguamish River.

Check him out on Instagram @flygyde. If you’re looking for steelhead guidance on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Alaska, British Columbia or Patagonia visit

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