Smoked Fish: A Do-It-Yourself Delicacy

Catching and eating fish from the cold and clear waters of Northern Ontario is one of the perks of living in this corner of the world.

Catching and eating fish from the cold and clear waters of Northern Ontario is one of the perks of living in this corner of the world. With a wide range of species available and a broad selection of cooking methods—from barbecuing to frying to steaming—consuming fish flesh never gets old. Angling chefs who want to add to their repertoire should try smoking fish.

I find rich-flavoured oily fish is the best for smoking. My favourites are lake trout, salmon, brook trout, and splake, but smoking will lend its unique flavour to any fish. I've smoked pike, walleye, and even ling with good results.

Lake Trout
Oily fish like lake trout are very good smoked

Smoking fish is not difficult. It just takes time. One method is cold smoking, which actually cures the fish through a drying process that can last several days at a constant temperature of around 32° C (90° F). Although cold-smoked fish will keep indefinitely, the time‑consuming process requires critically controlled conditions prohibitive to the backyard smoker.

The best method for the average angling gourmet is hot smoking, which actually cooks the fish at a low temperature over a six- to eight-hour period. Hot-smoked fish keeps in the refrigerator for about two weeks.

Fish Preparation

Smaller fish can be smoked whole, but any fish over three pounds is best filleted. Leave the skin on to help hold the fish together. Leave filets whole or cut them into manageable pieces before rinsing them with cold water.

Fatty Fish
Big lake trout like this can be a little bit fatty, but that's perfect for the smoker


The following brine is enough for up to eight pounds of fish. The proportions of salt and sugar can be adjusted to suit your personal tastes:

2 1/2 quarts of cold water

1 1/2 cups of pickling salt

1 cup of brown sugar

1 tablespoon of black pepper

2-3 crushed bay leaves 

Put ingredients in a non-metallic container and stir until the salt and sugar are dissolved. The container should be large enough to hold and totally submerge the fish in the brine solution.

I use a large round Tupperware container whose inside diameter is slightly larger than a dinner plate. Once the fish is in the brine, I place the plate on top to ensure the filets stay completely submerged.

I place the fish in brine just before going to bed and leave it in a cool place for six to eight hours. In the morning I rinse the filets thoroughly with cold water, and then I have the whole day for drying and smoking.

Chinook Salmon
James Smedley holds up two Chinook salmon destined for the smoker


Place the rinsed filets on newspaper skin side down and pat dry with a paper towel. Put filets on a rack in a well-ventilated area and let dry until a shiny film forms over the flesh. This can take three or four hours, but a fan blowing over the flesh helps to speed the process. The film, or pellicle, seals the fish, keeping it from losing moisture during smoking.


The thickest filets should be placed closest to the heat source of the smoker you are using. Maintain heat at 50° C (120° F) for three to four hours. Increase heat to 80° C (180° F) for two to four hours. Small pieces should only require one or two hours at 80° C, but filets over an inch thick will likely take the full four hours to cook completely. Smoked fish is great hot out of the smoker, but gets even better after mellowing a day or two in the refrigerator.                               


A key ingredient to smoking fish is a smoker. There are many commercial models on the market that work quite well, and many more homemade contraptions crafted from anything from old refrigerators to metal garbage cans.

Rich-flavoured fish like brook trout, splake, and salmon lend themselves well to smoking

Anything that will keep the fish in an atmosphere of dense smoke at consistent temperatures for a long period of time will do. A common mistake of the novice is smoking at excessively high temperatures. The ability to control the temperature is one of the most important functions of any smoker. On homemade models, a meat thermometer inserted through a small hole in the side will provide accurate temperature readings.

The Smoke

Although I prefer using a smouldering hardwood fire, one of the simplest and most popular ways of producing heat and smoke is placing wood chips in a cast iron pan over an electric hot plate or propane burner.

Whichever way you decide to create your smoke and heat, the type of wood you use has a great influence on the flavour and aroma of the fish. Never use evergreen, unless the idea of spruce-flavoured trout appeals to you. Stick to hardwood and fruit woods. Sugar maple is pretty hard to beat, and birch—with the bark removed—provides excellent results. 

It takes some time and planning to successfully smoke fish, but the marriage of delicate fish flesh to the smoke from smouldering hardwood is well worth the effort.

About James Smedley

Professional photographer and writer James Smedley’s contributions—more than 400 pieces and close to 1,000 images—to U.S. and Canadian books, magazines, and newspapers have earned him over 40 national and international awards. In addition to teaching photography workshops, James is the travel editor at Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine. James has fly-fished for brook trout and arctic grayling in far northern rivers and continues to cast for trout, bass, and steelhead near his home in the northern Ontario town of Wawa where he lives with his wife Francine and daughters Islay and Lillian.


Visit James at

Recommended Articles

Bobber-Whacky Magic

Don't Say Good-bye To The Bobber

3 Great Ontario Walleye Destinations

Karl of Extreme Angler recommends must do walleye lakes in Ontario.

Ontario Brook Trout

Fish these 10 sweet spots.

Lake of the Woods

10 Facts You Didn't Know

5 Places to Shore Fish

Fish’n Canada shows you where to go shore fishing in Ontario.

Top 10 Ice Fishing Lakes

Every kind of fish and experience—Ontario ice fishing is some of the best in the world.

Four Seasons of Bass in Ontario

Northern Ontario is home to year-round bass.

The Inside Scoop

The fall is the perfect time to hit the water when the fish are starting to feed.

Pike Aplenty

Fishing for Pike Has Been a Picnic in Northern Ontario This Fall Season

Wind, Cloud & Walleye

How Weather is Important to Walleye Anglers

Top 5 Flies for Smallmouth Bass

The inside scoop on bass flies from the hosts of The New Fly Fisher.

Long Nose Gar

A Fish for the Bucket List

Top 10 Fly Patterns for Brook Trout

Learn Brook Trout Fly Pattern Choices for Surface Fly Fishing

Exclusive Video

How To Zero In On Lake Trout

St. Francis Titans

Fishing the Original Muskie Capital of the World

Top Three Ontario Musky Waters

Where to catch the fish of 10,000 casts.

World Class Walleye

Fishing Day Trips on the Bay of Quinte

Top Drive-To Walleyes

5 Northern Ontario Drive-to Walleye Lakes

Fall Walleye

Using Chub, Bottom Bouncers and Beads

Fishing and Foraging

Add some fresh foods and forage to your fishing adventures!