Mike Valley, Prairie du Chien

Smoked Fish

By Mary Kate McCoy | June 30, 2020

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Valley's Hickory Smoked Salmon

Mike Valley
People have been fishing the Mississippi River for about a thousand years. It’s a tradition that’s passed down through families for survival and recreation. Mike Valley is part of that tradition and one of the last people to still make a living as a commercial fisherman on the Upper Mississippi. And when he gets his catch...he often smokes it.

Ingredients
  

  • Salmon wild-caught or farm-raised
  • Water
  • Salt
  • Seasoned Salt
  • Lemon Pepper
  • Black Pepper
  • Garlic
  • Sweet Basil Leaf
  • Ranch Seasoning
  • Brown Sugar
  • Ketchup
  • Maple Syrup

Instructions
 

  • Make sure that the salmon is thoroughly rinsed in ice cold water. Let drain for 20 minutes.
  • Mix a brine solution using regular salt and seasoned salt. Your salinity should be between 25 to 28 percent. If you do not have a salinity brine tester, mix the brine thoroughly with ice cold water and salt; then place an egg in the brine. About a pea size should be floating out of the water. If egg sinks, more salt needs to be added.
  • Place salmon in brine flesh down, skin up for 14 to 15 hours in cold storage.
  • After you have the salinity down, add some brown sugar, garlic, black pepper, sweet basil leaf, lemon pepper and ranch seasoning to a bowl. Mix rub thoroughly.
  • Take out salmon, add rub, and place on your smoker or grill skin down. Smoke between 175 and 275 degrees for around 6 to 7 hours.
  • When salmon starts to turn golden brown and wetness has disappeared, start to add your glaze. Our signature glaze is 1 gallon of ketchup, 1 quart of pancake syrup or pure maple syrup, and 2 pounds of brown sugar thoroughly mixed. This makes a wonderful glaze for all types of fish.

Notes

This recipe will hold true for any amount of salmon.

There are few fishermen like Mike Valley left on the Mississippi River.

Valley is a third generation fisherman, the work is in his blood. He’s one of the many people who have fished this water for about a thousand years.

He grew up hunting, trapping, clamming and working with his father. His dad also had a shop on the river and sold his fish to markets in Chicago, New York and Boston.

Mike Valley
Mike Valley is a third generation fisherman and one of the final commercial fisherman on the Upper Mississippi River. (Mary Kate McCoy/WPR)

Sitting in his fishing boat, with the bluffs of the Mississippi on both sides, Valley describes being out on the water and catching fish as peace and tranquility.

“Sitting here right now, this is absolutely beautiful to me, to get out of that phone ringing, people talking, all day, every day .. it’s just ahhhhh,” he said with a smile.

Lake as seen from boat.
View of the bluffs along the Mississippi River from Mike Valley’s fishing boat. (Mary Kate McCoy/WPR)

He’s owned Valley Fish and Cheese in Prairie du Chien since the 1980s. But as the fishing industry changed, Valley knew the only way he was going to survive was by forging his own path: sell quality, fresh fish and products that you can’t find anywhere else.

“You’ll never have anyone come into my shop and then leave and go home and tell all their friends and relatives, ‘This guy had beef jerky. Or, oh my God, he had Colby cheese!’ Valley said. “No. He had snapping turtle jerky and alligator jerky, catfish bologna — the weird things.”

Exterior view of shop.
Valley Fish & Cheese in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin has been open since the 1980s and carries on the Valley family tradition of selling fish in the region. (Mary Kate McCoy/WPR)
Refrigerated display case. Fish mounts and signs hang on wall above.
The display case at Valley Fish & Cheese features fish and seafood smoked by Mike Valley. (Mary Kate McCoy/WPR)

Even though Valley’s caught millions of pounds of fish, the novelty hasn’t worn off.

“Catching fish, I still really truly enjoy catching fish. The cleaning, not so much, but that’s part of the job,” he said with a laugh.

“Everybody that I take with me always … they’re like, ‘Oh my God this is so fun, man this is really great,’” he continued. “And then you get back and they go, ‘See ya!’”

Valley is particular — years of fishing and smoking his catch have taught him that you can’t cut corners if you want to stand out.

Valley cleans the fish — typically catfish, carp, buffalo and sturgeon — up to four times. Then he brines it for at least half a day.

Details matter, he says. Not all fish are the same — and they shouldn’t be treated the same. The thicker the fish, such as Atlantic salmon, the more salt you’re going to need. And each fish has its own brine with different seasonings to bring out its flavors.

Valley then puts the fish in the smoker — which he claims is the only licensed 100 percent wood smoker in the state. He uses hickory wood for the most part, but on occasion he’ll burn a little applewood.

“We light it with wood, it ends with wood,” he said. “No liquid smoke, no gas, no nothing. And that is huge. It makes a world of difference.”

And it can’t be rushed, patience is key. Valley could finish the fish in an hour, but he prefers to give the fish 10 to 12 hours to really soak up the smoky flavor.

He relates it to a sponge.

“If you just barely hold it on the water and just mist it, it sucks it in and takes time,” Valley said. “So that’s what you want to do with the fish. You want to very slowly permeate it and bring it up to temp.”

“Otherwise if you just cook it, it’s just a cooked piece of fish, it isn’t smoked,” he continued.

Handwritten sign in display case. Hickory smoked perch $12.89 per pound.
Fish for sale that was caught and smoked by Mike Valley. (Mary Kate McCoy/WPR)
Selection of jerky on store shelf. Handwritten signs. Perch jerky. Snapping turtle stix.
Mike Valley’s self-declared “weird things” for sale at his shop. He likes to offer products that aren’t easy to find elsewhere. (Mary Kate McCoy/WPR)

Valley jokes about a ‘law’ he has at Valley Fish and Cheese when customers make a modest purchase — once you buy it and leave the door, you can’t come back in and buy more that day.

“I will literally, honestly hear 10 times a day, this is unbelievable smoked fish,” he said. “Because it was swimming yesterday and was smoked today. Yeah, it’s to die for.”

Yet all that being said, Valley says you don’t necessarily need to head over to the Mississippi River and catch the fish yourself. He recommends finding a nice piece of salmon (or your fish of choice) and practicing a little patience.

Mike Valley poses with fishing boat.
Mike Valley poses with his commercial fishing boat at a landing along the Mississippi River. He’s been fishing these waters almost his whole life. (Mary Kate McCoy/WPR)
Sunset over lake.
Sunset on the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. (Mary Kate McCoy/WPR)

This story is part of Food Traditions, a multimedia project exploring food and culture across Wisconsin.

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Mary Kate McCoy

Mary Kate McCoy is a digital content producer at Wisconsin Public Radio. A lifelong Wisconsinite, she’s an enthusiastic euchre player and biker. In her free time, you can usually find her with a book or playing just one more game of ping pong.
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2020-07-01T15:54:47+00:00

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