Fish Food

When Port­land­based chef and restau­rant owner Elias Cairo rounds up friends to go fly-fish­ing on Ore­gon’s Grande Ronde River, they don’t ex­actly rough it


Char­cutier Elias Cairo leads a fly-fish­ing trip in Ore­gon’s Wal­lowa Moun­tains, com­plete with char-grilled trout

be­fore I floated down Ore­gon’s Grande Ronde River with chef and char­cutier Elias Cairo, I would have fig­ured that an an­gler who brought his own trout on a fish­ing trip to be sure to have some­thing for the grill was not much of a fish­er­man at all. This was the first les­son of many.

The idea of join­ing a fly-fish­ing trip with Cairo came up as we were wrap­ping the cook­book we wrote to­gether for his restau­rant Olympia Pro­vi­sions. “I’ve never seen any­where quite like the Wal­lowas,” he had told me. “It’s a moun­tain range: 250,000 acres of pub­lic land,

six thriv­ing rivers, and Hells Canyon, Amer­ica’s deep­est gorge. Come out and fish some­time.” I went home and looked it up on Google Maps. Fish­ing wasn’t usu­ally my thing, but this was com­ing from a guy who ap­pren­ticed for a mur­der­ers’ row of in­tim­i­dat­ing Swiss chefs and Jäger­meis­ters, a for­mer USA na­tional team snow­boarder who also has a vine­yard in his back­yard. In nine years, he turned his first busi­ness into a Port­land mini em­pire: five restau­rants and a mas­sive salume­ria, plus a hot dog cart for good mea­sure. He is, in other words, not some­one who half-asses any­thing he does.

The plans were for­got­ten un­til they weren’t, and all of a sud­den I was in a Toy­ota Ta­coma three hours down the road from Port­land, with five more still to go. Cairo was driv­ing me and two of his Olympia Pro­vi­sions col­leagues—and old­est friends—tyler Gas­ton and Eric Moore, to a cell­phones­ig­nal-free re­treat close to the Idaho bor­der. Trips like this have been rou­tine for Cairo and Moore since they were teenage snow­board­ers in Salt Lake City. “When I wasn’t at school or work­ing at my par­ents’ diner, I’d bor­row the car, and we’d es­cape to the river,” Cairo says. “We’d talk trash, drink beers, smoke, and fish.”

Not much has changed. One rea­son Cairo chose Port­land as home was its prox­im­ity to wilder­ness. Af­ter a week at the meat plant, he of­ten heads east with his fi­ancée, Jes­sica Hereth (an Olympia Pro­vi­sions som­me­lier), and his two dogs, Leather and Utah. When a week re­ally gets to him, he’ll trek all the way to the Wal­lowas to fish. “This spot may have the most di­verse wa­ter in Amer­ica,” he says. “Chi­nook salmon, gor­geous bass, and trout so big, they feed on mice.”

Along the way, we blow by Pendle­ton— home of the epony­mous blan­kets—and at one point pull over to pick wild plums and huck­le­ber­ries. Even­tu­ally we turn north onto Prom­ise Road and climb in el­e­va­tion. Be­low, a canyon sinks ter­ri­fy­ingly. The sun is set­ting against the Wal­lowas, turn­ing the tops a rich cop­per, around the time we reach the ham­let of Troy. Here you’ll find 10 peo­ple (ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent cen­sus), a gro­cery store that’s open “once in a while,” a school­house, and, down the road, our cabin.

We’re among the last to ar­rive and, even though we’re eight hours from the city, it feels like in­dus­try night: A siz­able crew has as­sem­bled, and while there’s no elec­tric­ity, there is Cam­pari. Hereth greets us with glasses of a pinot noir that she made her­self, and Cairo and his friend Dave Flynn, a lo­cal rancher, be­gin toss­ing enor­mous


bone-in cuts of beef straight into a fire to cook di­rectly on the coals, which leaves the out­side of the steaks crusty and smoky but not a bit sooty.

“His­tor­i­cally, Ore­gon is cat­tle coun­try,” Flynn says. “Free range is all we do.” One of Troy’s 10 in­hab­i­tants, he first vis­ited the town on a fish­ing trip when he was 19 and re­solved to re­lo­cate. He asked a rancher off Prom­ise Road if he needed a hand and, over a decade, helped mul­ti­ply his 30 head of cat­tle to around 30,000. Part of their se­cret turned out to be pigs: The cows eat the grasses, which are re­gen­er­ated by the pigs, who turn the soil and keep out in­va­sive species. They’ve be­gun leas­ing the pigs to other lo­cal ranch­ers. “This re­ally is pro­gres­sive stuff,” Cairo points out. “His prac­tices have re­de­fined how we re­ceive pork at our shop.”

Once the steaks are ready, Hereth brings out a slab of Cal­i­for­nia blue cheese. Slices of cheese as big as a piece of birth­day cake

are gin­gerly placed atop the beef like pats of but­ter. We fall into a rhythm: Add logs to the fire when it burns low, re­place the bot­tles of wine and whiskey as they’re emp­tied, and sud­denly it is only a few hours from sun­rise.

The next day, in fact, starts at sun­rise, as if we are on some bizarre he­do­nis­tic Ore­gon Trail: late nights, end­less bot­tles of wine, har­mon­i­cas, and cof­fee fil­tered through a pa­per towel. The boat is pro­vi­sioned with Yeti cool­ers full of beers, pick­les, and Olympia Pro­vi­sions ter­rines; and we’re soon drift­ing down the Grande Ronde. Cairo points out the ar­eas where the most trout can be found— where the wa­ter foams up, or the dark shadow where a shal­low shoal drops off into a deeper chan­nel. We choose one, park the rafts, and wade in. Pretty quickly, Moore catches not a trout but a long, sil­ver north­ern pikeminnow, a white­fish that thrives in the reser­voirs of the state’s hy­dropower sys­tem.

Here be­gins my ed­u­ca­tion. Fly-fish­er­men aim to be re­spon­si­ble stew­ards of the rivers they fish. Pikeminnow­s, it turns out, are a lit­tle too happy in the reser­voirs, and they prey on ju­ve­nile trout and salmon, threat­en­ing their sur­vival. The state of Ore­gon will pay an­glers up to eight bucks for ev­ery fish re­moved from cer­tain bod­ies of wa­ter. We don’t need this in­duce­ment—in the right hands, I would later learn, they are de­li­cious.

For vul­ner­a­ble na­tive fish like trout and salmon, on the other hand, Cairo prac­tices a strict catch-and-re­lease ethic. The days of fish­er­men show­ing off long chains of na­tive fish are long gone. “We are try­ing to learn from our mis­takes,” Cairo ex­plains. “We use bar­b­less hooks, and if we catch a na­tive rain­bow trout, it’s im­por­tant to be sure we get it back into the wa­ter as quickly as pos­si­ble.” This ex­plains the store-bought fish: If we want to eat trout, it is a BYO sit­u­a­tion.

Non-na­tive small­mouth bass are an­other story. We float on our way in search of “bassy” ar­eas. When we find the right spot, the com­pe­ti­tion be­gins. “If you catch noth­ing—get skunked—you can’t show your face around these guys,” Cairo says with a laugh.

The key to catch­ing what­ever lies be­neath is find­ing the per­fect fly. Some fish eat tiny midges and will be fooled only by flies smaller than my pinkie fin­ger­nail. Oth­ers prey on small fish and will at­tack big, flashy streamer flies. To­day, we start cast­ing pop­pers—a fly

that im­i­tates a frog and makes a pop­ping noise as it skims on top of the wa­ter. One af­ter an­other, the fish emerge from their hid­ing spots and crush the foam flies with an alarm­ing, thrilling splash.

We break for lunch: pimiento cheese and grilled padrón pep­per toasts, baked beans with corn and cherry toma­toes, sar­dine sand­wiches with olives and sliced toma­toes, and Olympia Pro­vi­sions saucis­son sec. Once we’ve killed the last bot­tle of wine, some 200 yards from camp, I dive into the wa­ter to float down­stream as I ad­mire a black bear sun­ning it­self on a cliff in the mid­dle dis­tance.

We didn’t get skunked. All in all, we brought back six small­mouth bass and $40 or so worth of pikeminnow­s. (All of the trout got re­leased.) Cairo stuffs the fish with le­mon and fen­nel fronds, then tosses them on the coals just as he did with the steaks the night be­fore. He tries to re­mem­ber how he first heard about a place this mag­i­cal and out there.

“Wasn’t it Gene?” Moore asks. Gene Thiel was a pi­o­neer of the Slow Food move­ment in the Pa­cific North­west, and was one of the first pur­vey­ors at the Port­land Farm­ers Mar­ket. In the early 2000s, if you were a chef in Port­land, you wor­shipped Thiel. Cairo met him in 2006. “The guy would show up places with weath­ered, base­ballmitt hands full of plums. He also loved fish­ing,” Cairo says. “Hardly 30 sec­onds would go by any time I saw him be­fore he brought up fish.” Even­tu­ally, Thiel told him about this place, known mostly only by pro­gres­sive farm­ers and for­agers he’d met through the mar­ket, where the lakes were alpine-clean, the gorges breath­tak­ing, and the trout hun­gry and gullible.

Once the skins of the fish have been am­ply charred by the coals, Cairo re­moves the le­mon rounds and fen­nel fronds, smashes them in a mor­tar, and uses the pul­ver­ized mix­ture as a gar­nish for the fish, which we devour with skil­let-roasted zuc­chini and sum­mer squash with oregano, mint, and warm sheep’s-milk cheese. Some­one passes me some Mead­owsweet Punch—a cock­tail made of gin, rosé, and a home­made mead­owsweet flower syrup.

“On my first trip up here, I re­mem­ber run­ning up small creeks in the moun­tains, bag­ging morel mush­rooms and catch­ing cut­throats,” Cairo says, re­fer­ring to a shy na­tive trout. The whole trip, he didn’t see an­other soul. “It’s an es­cape from re­al­ity,” he says. “You come up here, and all you have to fo­cus on is where the fish are.”



Clock­wise from top left: Even the fruit comes with meat; Elias Cairo tends to the grill; Cairo do­ing all the work; Cairo and Jes­sica Hereth.

Clock­wise from top: A hun­gry crew gath­ers; just a cor­ner of the spread; pep­pers blis­ter on the grill.

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