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He Goes to the End of the Earth for Trout

July 21, 1988|MIKE SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

While we all accept the fact that planning a really special meal can take a little time, Bill Halpin just might carry that point to extremes, considering that his preparations begin with an annual trek to an area close to the Arctic Circle.

Halpin's favorite dish is steelhead trout, not exactly a catch of the day in your local fish market or restaurant. Like salmon, it is a fish born in fresh water that goes to sea, returning to spawn. Unlike salmon, which die after spawning, the steelhead can repeat the process--unless it runs into seals or the Bill Halpins of the world.

"During the spawning season, the seals form a line across the mouth of a river and have a grand feast," he says, "each of them eating more steelhead in a day than I could in a lifetime."

The river is the Killabella, located in the far northern climes of British Columbia, an area where endangered species such as bald eagles, grizzly bears and Arctic wolves are still common sights.

"It's such a magical place," Halpin says, "that in all candor I'm not sure it would bother me that much if I didn't catch anything." And, as you would imagine, getting there isn't all that easy either, involving a commercial flight to Vancouver, then a hop to the aptly named Point Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and finally a puddle-jumping old seaplane to the Killabella.

"It's that last leg that's the killer," Halpin says. "Passengers wear earphones, not to listen to music, but just to help drown out the incredible noise of the engines."

Canadian fish and game regulations allow each fisherman to bring home two fish, so Halpin and the other members of the group eat what they can at the site before returning. Two fish might not seem like much, but steelhead can average 20 pounds, so for a while anyway, there are some around Halpin's Huntington Beach home for family and special friends.

"Steelhead has a very delicate taste," he says, "somewhere in between regular trout and salmon, so I don't like to fool with its integrity in cooking it. I barbecue it over medium heat, marinating it with a light sauce of my invention." He also serves additional sauce with the fish.

The sauce/marinade has only two ingredients--mayonnaise and white wine--so writing it down hardly seems necessary. "Depending on how much sauce you need, just put a bunch of mayonnaise in a bowl and slowly mix in some good quality dry white wine," he says, "remembering that the quality of the sauce depends on the quality of the wine. You want it to be thin enough to spread easily, but thick enough so that it doesn't run off."

Halpin slices the fish into 3/4-inch-thick cuts and covers the tops of the steaks with the sauce, letting it sit for "at least" 10 minutes before cooking. To avoid sticking and other problems, he uses a fish basket for the grill. "Cook skin-side up first, for about 3 minutes, then turn and cook for about 6 minutes, basting it occasionally with the sauce."

While he devised the sauce specifically for steelhead trout, he says it works well with any fish with a flavor you would want enhanced, but not changed. "It's perfectly good for trout or salmon," he says.

Halpin, who owns the Signal Hill-based O'Connor Advertising Agency, proudly points out that he is the "son of a sea cook" and comes by his interest in the kitchen honestly. "My father left Ireland after what they still call the 'troubles' of the rebellion against England, and the only way he could get out was to hire on a tramp steamer crew. A few days out, the cook died, so my father became the cook."

Halpin doesn't do a lot of cooking at home, he says, because his wife Sandi "is such an excellent cook, I'd be silly to even try it. Her abilities are head and shoulders above mine."

Until he gets to the steelhead, that is.

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