April marks the pinnacle month of fishing in Margaret River. This is a time when local waters are at their warmest, herring are at their fattest, and the celebrated Australian salmon are making their annual run up the coast.
The salmon migrate with the warm Leeuwin Current that is vital for them to lay their eggs. They congregate in particular abundance about the Margaret River region. Here, great black whirlpools of up to 50-tonne of schooling fish strike a brilliant contrast against dazzling white sands and provide a sporting target for anglers, who can catch fish of up to ten kilograms directly off the beach!
While this natural phenomenon provides sport for contemporary anglers, the salmon run has also sustained and rejoiced one thousand generations of the South West’s Aboriginal Wadandi people, says Wadandi Cultural Custodian and Cape Cultural Tours guide, Josh Whiteland.
“Ngari, the local word for salmon, migrate in Bunuru and Djeran seasons around March, April, May when the Eucalyptus and Melaleuca trees flower,” says Josh. “Down by the Dunsborough “Quedjidup’ foreshore people would gather, and all along this Meelup Regional Park area. Up here there is a fish trap where the salmon come right in close, into knee deep water, where they are easy to catch.”
“This time of year, people from all around would come together. Families from inland would come to the coast to meet with local groups, stories would be told about migrating salmon, special fishing dances to celebrate this. Salmon was a major food source that time of year.”
The Wadandi people used natural indicators to determine the salmon season had arrived, relying on the cycle of flowering plants and natural patterns as opposed to the inexorable linear calendar.
“You know the salmon are here because you see flocks of white-tailed black cockatoos, we start getting the first rains, there are fruiting emu plums, and just a slight change in temperature of the water,” says Josh.
“Every couple of months, every second moon there is a plant that tells you what season it is. You see the plants change and the animals change, and the weather patterns change. Our calendar is our environment around us.”
Today, Josh shares this ancient knowledge through his Djiljit Fishing Experience, where guests are able to partner a contemporary fishing experience with traditional stories and culinary methods.
“I pick them up, take them out on country, share stories. We look for schools of salmon, herring and other local species,” Josh explains. “We fish with rods, but show them the traditional way, where we would make fishing spears from the wannang tree – Peppermint Tree – and then smoke the salmon with she-oak or banksia, any wood with a fair amount of oil and resin. They are wrapped and smoked in paperbark, or cut up in fillets and smoked on a rack.”
“You can also cook them fresh on hot coals, stuff them with sea celery, salt bush, and dune spinach. That way, you leave their scales on, so when they are placed on the fire and cooked on hot coals you can just pull the skin and the scales off and they are ready to eat.”
Salmon are best enjoyed fresh – the fresher the better – and must be bled immediately after being caught. Favoured contemporary culinary methods include smoking, using in fish cakes and patties, and in curries. Salmon makes an excellent companion with any dry white from Margaret River’s myriad wineries, or around the barbeque with a delicious brew from the Eagle Bay Brewing Co.
While Australian salmon are one of the most sustainable fish stocks around, anecdotal evidence from experienced fisherman, like Josh, shows that fish numbers have greatly decreased in recent years, and there is only one guarantee in fishing: if we constantly take from our natural stocks without observing some forms of control – either voluntarily or by legislation and enforcement – one day the fish will be gone forever.
The legal bag limit is four per fisher, per day, but Josh suggests a more conservative approach is best.
“Sustainability is vital. There has been a steady decrease in fish numbers, and we’re seeing that all around the world. There are definitely less fish around than when I was a kid, and to make sure there is enough for future generations we need to look after our stocks,” he says.
“The best way to do that is to only take what you need.”
So, you’ve caught your salmon. Now – how best to enjoy it?
1. Traditional Method – Smoking
Smoking Australian salmon is one of the best ways to enjoy the fish. It imparts a delicate smoky flavour to the strong dark meat.
“Traditionally, salmon would be wrapped in paper bark and smoked over smouldering sheoak, banksia, or jarrah – anything with a fair amount of resin,” says Wadandi cultural custodian, Josh Whiteland.
Salmon is easily smoked at home, even without a sophisticated gas smoker. Allow a fire to burn down to white hot coals, and then add green banksia or sheoak wood to smoke the salmon resting on a rack above. Banksia nuts soaked in water also smoke very well.
2. Traditional Method – Cooking on Coals
Salmon can be cooked directly on hot white coals. This way, the skin and scales are left on to protect the meat and will easily peel away when the fish is cooked. They would also be stuffed and spiced straight on the beach using coastal shrubs endemic to Western Australia.
“Traditionally it would be stuffed with salt bush, dune spinach, and sea celery. You leave their scales on, so when they are cooked you can just pull the skin and the scales off and they are ready to eat,” says Josh Whiteland.
3. Contemporary Method – Curry
Most contemporary anglers choose to bleed their fish immediately upon catching. This improves the eating quality of the fish. It is done by slitting the gills and slicing the fish along its throat, before dunking it in water to prevent the blood from coagulating. The fish is often then skinned, scaled, and filleted, with the dark bloody sections of meat cut away.
Australian salmon is excellent in any variety of red or green curry. It’s best paired with garlic, ginger, coriander, and chili, and even better when washed down with an icy cold Eagle Bay brew!
4. Contemporary Method – Salmon Patties (with a bonus recipe!)
Mince salmon fillets either with two large meat cleavers or in a food processor.
Blend into a thick pattie mix with onion, egg, breadcrumbs, and any combination of herbs and spices.
For an oriental variety, try garlic, ginger, coriander, as much chilli as desired, fish sauce, palm sugar, and a little rice wine vinegar.
For European flavours try dill, lemon zest and juice, garlic, and parsley.
Fry in a heavy based frypan on medium heat. Wash down with an icy cold glass of Chardonnay or dry white wine from any of Margaret River’s world-class wineries. A true regional special!