"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing."

- "A River Runs Through It," Norman Maclean

In our family, fishing has been not so much a religion as the legacy of generations - a dormant but lingering theme passed down my wife's side through heirlooms, taxidermy, and lore.

When my mother-in-law was crowned Miss Penn State in 1951, the pivotal question Barbara Klopp answered from the judges, she proudly remembered, had to do with fishing.

She married a serious angler, too, in Arthur Trostler. I never met him, because he died several years before I married his daughter Elizabeth. But we are surrounded by so many relics of his fishing obsession - from tackle boxes filled with gear to signed fly rods, mounted trophies, and a serene photo of him casting for trout in Vermont's Black River - that I feel like I do know him a bit. I've often looked at his poles gathering dust in our basement with the eyes of someone who rarely fished and wondered: So, what is the magic really about?

Well, after an unexpected recent adventure, hip-deep and fly-casting with my family in the middle of a spawning run on the Salmon River in Upstate New York, I now have a very good idea.

From the moment we arrived at the Tailwater Lodge there, my son, also named Arthur, started begging: "I want to go fishing!"

That Trostler DNA was surely firing in his 12-year-old brain as he watched the hordes of grizzled men tromping around us in the dining room, heading toward the river, which ran just behind the hotel.

I was quick to agree. Elizabeth and my 15-year-old daughter, Alice, were not so sure. We'd really headed north for a long weekend simply to soak in the fall foliage, and landed at this new hotel in Altmar because everything farther south in Ithaca was booked. A tone-deaf hotel clerk's recounting of a tragic death this fall on the river in nearby Pulaski didn't help: "But he died a hero . . . at least he saved his son."

Arthur and I caught each other's eyes: Gulp.

There was gorgeous scenery to take in, no doubt. But the Tug Hill Plateau is above all a destination for fishing, a $22 million industry on the Salmon River, with an estimated 88,000 Chinook salmon caught annually, says New York's Department of Environmental Protection.

And Altmar, where Pulaski Street and Route 13 are lined with plywood fish-gutting shacks, parking-lot rock concerts, rustic motels, booze-fumed bait shops, and more than a few crumpled beer cans, is the man-cave-tailgate-party heart of it all. It's also home to the Salmon River Fish Hatchery, which stocks the lower Great Lakes with salmon and steelhead trout.

The eight-month-old Tailwater Lodge, repurposed from an old elementary school with just enough boutique hotel flair, is an appealing upscale alternative. That the hotel rents wading boots and rods was especially encouraging to beginners like us. But it was the "BYOF(ish)" feature in the Tailwater's restaurant - we catch it, they cook it - that ultimately had us hooked.

"Let's do it!" Elizabeth said, channeling for a moment the adventurous spirit of her mom, who died in June. Within moments, a woman at the front desk had connected us with two excellent young guides, Josh Moore and Tommy Basciani, who made a plan to meet us first thing the next morning.

Too late now to back out.

Crack! That was the sound of breaking ice that had glazed our car doors shut on the coldest morning yet of fall. It was 7:30 a.m. We felt woefully unprepared and nervous for hours in the frigid water.

But the river beckoned with preternatural beauty. Fringed by stunning fall colors, it steamed with a thick mist that hovered among dozens of men already casting midstream.

As Josh and Tommy patiently helped us each enter the coursing flow, thoughts of the chill evaporated into maintaining balance as our metal cleats gripped the river's slippery stones and we carefully shuffled into the surprisingly strong current. There we learned the proper cast, pulling the line out across our chests, then letting the slack tighten when we flung the bait to our right, upstream. I watched it drift downstream to "10 o'clock," pulled the line back across my chest, circled the pole up, and cast back out to "2 o'clock." Repeat. ("A four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise," wrote Maclean.)

"They're not very hungry now, so we're trying to make 'em angry!" said Josh. "Tease those fish!"

The morning glare gave the river an impervious gray sheen. But the experienced fishermen nearby seemed to have X-ray vision, peering through the surface to spot silvery fish hurdling upstream: "There's one right behind you!" I heard more than once. I kept casting.

Suddenly, Elizabeth had one on her line.

"Let it out! Let it out!" urged Tommy, who'd helped hook it and coached her to give the salmon some slack. Snap! It broke the line and escaped downstream.

Alice's pole was suddenly taut and bending.

"Bring the pole down close to your body! Keep it low!" Tommy said before this one, too, broke away.

Somehow, five hours washed away. My feet were numb, my casting arm was sore. I was about to give up. That's when I saw Arthur - wide-eyed and gripping a pole with Tommy for dear life - tensely stepping downstream with a monster fish pulling desperately on the line. The entire gallery of fishermen held its breath as the two slowly reeled that majestic, slippery creature in, while Josh scooped him into a net. Arthur held him up and we all gasped. The 28-pounder was nearly as big as the boy.

"We got something to eat!" Arthur said, beaming.

Tailwater chef Bert French did not disappoint. For $15 a plate, he prepared our thick fillets as we requested three separate ways: simply seared, slow-poached in bacon fat, and crusted in blackening spice, my favorite. The rest was vacuum-sealed in plastic and packed over ice for our trip home.

The texture was spectacular, fresh and firm. The flavor? Surprisingly dull. This landlocked salmon, one of two Pacific breeds introduced in the late 1960s (with coho) in a successful attempt to rebalance a Great Lake ecosystem, do not look anything like their ocean-raised counterparts. Instead of a vivid orange hue, these freshwater fillets are pale pink and bland.

That's likely why about half are released once they're caught for sport, and many of the rest are smoked in roadside pits along Route 13. Ours instead had a date back home with my Big Green Egg grill, which upon our return was set to 170 degrees and puffing cherry and alder wood smoke.

Nearly five hours later, they emerged fragrant, one shined with a maple-soy glaze, the other encrusted with a coriander-pepper pastrami spice inspired by a recipe from the chefs at Abe Fisher.

The kids and I devoured our portions: "Let's do this again!" said Arthur.

Elizabeth, never much one for smoked fish, couldn't help but agree, adding, "My mother would have loved to hear about this adventure."

There was a hint of melancholy in her voice, but I knew she was pleased: Her family's fishing legacy had been passed on.

Smoked Salmon With Maple-Soy Glaze

One fillet yields 10 to 15 portions

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1 large salmon fillet, pin bones removed (5 to 7 pounds)

Dry cure:

1/2 cup kosher salt

2 cloves chopped garlic

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 crumbled bay leaves

Glaze:

3/4 cup maple syrup

Zest of 1 lime

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 teaspoon soy

1 clove crushed garlic

2 handfuls of wood chips (preferably alder, fruitwood or both), soaked in water 2-3 hours prior to smoking

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1. Mix the dry-cure ingredients in a bowl.

2. Spread liberally on both sides of the fillet. Cover with plastic wrap and place fillet in a glass container in the refrigerator.

3. After about 8 hours, remove the fillet, rinse it thoroughly in cold water, then soak it in an ice-water bath for 20 minutes to further remove excess salt.

4. Pat it dry and place the fillet back in the refrigerator uncovered for two to three hours more to dry. The salmon should become tacky to the touch. This is the "pellicle," created by proteins in the meat, that allows smoke to better cling to the fish.

5. Prepare the smoker according to the brand's directions, setting the heat at 170 degrees and placing a disposable aluminum pan with an inch of water inside under the grate directly below the fish to catch drippings. Once the wood chips begin to smolder, add fish.

7. While the fish is smoking, prepare the glaze. Combine all of the glaze ingredients in a small pan, bring to a boil, and reduce for five minutes. Paint this over the fillet for the final half-hour on the grill.

8. The salmon should be done within 4 to 5 hours, depending on thickness, and the fillet is ready when the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.

9. Serve immediately, or cool to room temperature, wrap tightly, and refrigerate for up to three days.

- Inspired by a recipe by Ginny Lee on HubPages.com

Per serving: 304 calories; 41 grams protein; 6 gram carbohydrates; 10 grams sugar; 13 grams fat; 93 milligrams cholesterol; 825 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.EndText

Pastrami-Smoked Salmon

One fillet yields 10 to 15 portions

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1 large side of salmon fillet, pin bones removed, 5 to 7 pounds

Dry cure:

1/2 cup kosher salt

1 cup brown sugar

5 teaspoons paprika

21/2 teaspoons caraway seeds

3 teaspoons mustard seeds

11/4 teaspoons ground white pepper

Crust:

21/2 tablespoons black pepper, ground coarsely

4 tablespoons coriander seeds, ground coarsely

21/2 teaspoons allspice, purchased whole, but then ground fine

2 handfuls wood chips (preferably alder, fruitwood or both), soaked in water 2-3 hours prior to smoking

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1. Mix the dry-cure ingredients in a bowl.

2. Spread liberally on both sides of the fillet. Cover with plastic wrap and place fillet in a glass container in the refrigerator.

3. After about 8 hours, remove the fillet, rinse it thoroughly in cold water, and then soak it in an ice-water bath for 20 minutes to further remove excess salt.

4. Pat it dry and place the fillet back in the refrigerator uncovered for two to three more hours to dry. The salmon should become tacky to the touch. This is the "pellicle," created by proteins in the meat, that allows smoke to better cling to the fish.

5. Mix ingredients for the crust in a bowl and then pack liberally atop the fillet.

6. Prepare the smoker according to the brand's directions, setting the heat at 170 degrees, and placing a disposable aluminum pan with an inch of water inside under the grate directly below the fish to catch drippings. Once the wood chips begin to smolder, add fish.

7. The salmon should be done within 4 to 5 hours, depending on thickness, and the fillet is ready when the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.

8. Serve immediately, or cool to room temperature, wrap tightly, and refrigerate for up to three days.

- Adapted from a recipe by Yehuda Sichel of Abe Fisher
 
Per serving (based on 15): 287 calories; 41 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 2 grams fat; 93 milligrams cholesterol; 559 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText

@CraigLaBan