In Praise of the Tin Man - by Darryl Choronzey

In Praise of the Tin Man - by Darryl Choronzey

THE CHIEF IS DEAD (1974-2014)

At 40 years of age, a dedicated, reliable friend, suddenly left this world due to the careless results of drunk driving. Born on the banks of the Columbia River, at Hood River, Oregon, he was my constant companion over the decades. While he never actually fished, he was always there to be plugged in, smoked up and supplied me with the tastiest of rewards after a long day working the water.

Thank you Chief for your long years of faithful loyalty. As for the thoughtless fool that crushed the life out of you, may his rod never bend again with a fish on its end.

the big chief smoker

I was actually going to post this obituary around Steelheader’s Park on the banks of the Saugeen River last autumn. After a long day of drifting spawn sacs on the middle stretch of the Saugeen I was looking forward to smoking up two 7-pound steelhead that I had tricked earlier in the day.

As I pulled up beside my trailer, there he lay on his back.

The sight of the old boy all crumpled up and battered almost brought me to tears. Destroyed by some lunatic, the Chief was not even a shell of his old self. Hell, the shell didn’t even look like a shell. The galvanized coated box that kept his heat in was twisted, bent, crinkled, folded over and pressed in to a dozen directions. Even his rib cage comprised of a half dozen smoking racks were all but unrecognizable. As for the hickory chip pan, it looked more like a plate and had its handle ripped off.

The Chief was dead!

A Little History

The Chief had been a “special” present given to me by Luhr Jensen Jr., at the time, the vice-president of Luhr Jensen and Sons of Hood River, Oregon, way back in the summer of 1974. It was my first trip to a little fishing village called Lund, British Columbia, that Luhr was introducing me to.

At the time, Lund, located on the mainland across the Inside Passage from Campbell River, was, like most of the province, experiencing a sportfishing explosion. Visiting anglers, with their R.V.’s, boats, motors and trailers were everywhere and clogging every available camping spot in the region. Approaching the community a couple of all new aromas caught my attention, along with the sight of heavy clouds of smoke hanging over the community.

Luhr noted that the salmon must have arrived and our fun was about to begin.

“That’s the smell of fresh caught salmon young man. Salmon now in the smokers. Just wait til you taste it!”

As we pulled into the campground it seemed that dozens of anglers were huddled around odd shaped rectangular metal boxes that were pumping out smoke and fragrances that were all strange and delicious to a newcomer from the east.

Before we headed to Luhr’s cabin on the point of the harbor, we took time for my host to introduce me to a number of his friends and also to taste test their finished products.

As can be expected, the first bite of smoked salmon made me a believer.

smoked salmon fish

Not just a believer but the start of a fixation that what would lead to decades of devotion to the art of smoking fish.

For the next week, the newbie became the believer.

The saltwater of British Columbia offered up the finest fishing I had ever experienced and those funny shaped little steel boxes offered up one hell of an end product after a day of trolling on the ocean. I was hooked. I should add... hooked for life. A few short months later I found myself owning a small piece of acreage less than a mile from that same campground and also became a proud owner of my own Big Chief smoker. It was a “special” moving in gift from friend Luhr Jensen Jr.

That year, living in Lund produced a lot salmon fillets for my friends and myself. The Chief also pumped out a lot of other smoked delicacies. Prawns, clams, oysters, venison and even humble hamburger kept my buddy working around the clock. If I wasn’t fishing I was smoking fish.  There were always cured filets on the racks, getting the heat treatment. 

Life was beautiful.

When it came time to relocate back east, the Chief was the first item carefully stowed away in the first shipping crate. The Great Lakes have a magnificent salmon and trout fishery of their own and for the next three decades the Big Chief just kept on pumping. Kings, coho, steelhead, lake trout and brown were always gracing the racks. Over the years the old boy produced a lot of fine eating. I also experimented and enjoyed walleye, northern pike, whitefish and even the humble smelt. When it came to a cut of meat or poultry, I believe I’ve tried them all. I should also add, I enjoyed them all. 

The best features of Big Chief, Little Chief and the Mini Chief for that matter, is simplicity.

This brand of smoker is easy to use and easy to successfully smoke fish or for just about anything else you might want to try. There are no knobs to turn, buttons to push or temperature settings to tinker with. brine fish smoked salmon steelhead trout

The instructions are easy to follow. 

  1. Mix a brine of basically salt, sugar and water.
  2. Place the fish fillets or steaks in the brine.
  3. Allow the fish and brine to spend a prescribed amount of time in the refrigerator.
  4. Drain, rinse and dry the fish until it becomes tacky.smoked fish drying
  5. Plug in the smoker’s electrical cord.
  6. Add wood chips to the bottom pan of the smoker. Transfer the fish to the smoker racks.
  7. Close the door.
  8. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, especially on heating time.

big chief fish smoker

Presto….you have the best tasting smoked fish made for man. 


Now, before I go any further, I have to admit I am guilty of a little man against metal unfaithfulness when came to me and the Chief. Over the years I did a little straying.

You could say I was cheating a little on the Chief at times. My love for smoked seafood and wild game would occasionally lead me astray, especially when I was confronted with some of the newer boys on the market. Some guys collect girlfriends, my fault is I’ve collected other brands of smokers, those new and improved electronic marvels. Some people collect too many lures. I seem to collect too many smokers. I used to assure myself with the fact that what he couldn’t see, wouldn’t hurt his feelings. In his place of honor, in the corner of my garage, he was always tucked and stored away in the original cardboard box he first arrived in decades before.

I will admit that I am impressed with the durability and proficiency of most of these newer models. Some heat up faster. Some can be dialed up to a hotter temperature. Some are digitally time controlled to click on and off at a desired hour. Some will even handle the entire cooking of a full roast of beef or a big Thanksgiving turkey. None of which the Chief was capable of. 

Still my heart always remained with the Chief.

The best word to use was….simplicity!

Now, over the years I’ve learned a lot about fishing and a lot about cooking fish from some of the best.  One of the best in my opinion on both matters is an old legend from Hood River, Oregon, by the name of Herb Good.  Herb is an all round salmon and steelhead expert. He’s also one of the top fishing guides I’ve ever shared a boat with, part instructor and part storyteller.  When he’s not fishing, he attends the winter and spring sportsmen show circuit around Washington, Oregon and California. He talks techniques, both on both fish and game and how to catch them. He’s also a master on the preparation of fish and game once you do catch them. He has established a long list of dedicated sponsors, due to years of experience. It also doesn’t hurt that his folky, down to earth on stage personality keeps the attention of his audience. Hell, I’ve been a part of that audience for more than 40 years.

big chief smoker hamburger chicken fish

Above: Hamburger Loaf wrapped before smoking

If you know Herb, you also know he’s opinionated and more than willing to pass along those opinions. He goes on to tell me over and over about the questions frequently asked over the years by the members of his audience. The subject almost always comes around to over-cooking your catch, not properly smoking your catch.

Most of the newly introduced smokers of today come equipped with temperature gauges and the biggest sin comes about when the user tinkers. Proper smoking of fish and game is a slow process.  The curing and smoking of fish and game has been around since 1000 B.C. Back then, and even today it’s a case of properly curing and low temperature drying of the meat. Not cooking your fish or game. Low temperature heat, in this case the Big Chief, is utilized to remove moisture and firm up the meat. The aroma of the various wood chips used in the heat process permeates the meat with it own delicate flavor. Once again, properly curing, drying, slow smoking and low temperature is imperative to removing the moisture, firming up the meat and allowing it to be stored for long periods of time. 

Good has stressed to me  repeatedly that there is no such thing as fast smoking, at least when it comes to doing the job properly.  Keep you finger off the heat trigger. But, then again with the Chief there is no trigger to fidget with.

Is the Big Chief and his companion the Little Chief still popular?

You bet. Four factors can be responsible for this success… reliability, simplicity, finished product and cost. My friend the Chief was more than 40 years of age when he experienced his demise. I believe I changed one power cord and just gave him a bath once or twice. At the same time, I’m no rocket scientist. Over the years I kept pretty much to a few simple brine and coating recipes when it came to my culinary success. Until unfortunately being crushed into a mess, he was aging perfectly, slowly transforming from a bright chrome polish to a dark mahogany tanned elder statesman.

Surrounded in clouds of hickory and alder smoke will do that to the best of us. As for price, amazingly these smokers are just about the same value today that they were four decades ago. 

When Phil Jensen decided to retire and sit back and smell the roses after spending close to half a century heading Luhr Jensen and Sons, he separated his business venture into two separate divisions. The tackle portion of the company was purchased by Normark, while the Luhr Jensen Smokehouse Products stayed put in Hood River, Oregon, when acquired by Bob Souric and his competent staff.

big chief smokers

It should be noted, under the Smokehouse brands, expansion has taken place.

Besides the Big Chief, Little Chief, Mini Chief, wood chips and brines that came with original company purchase there’s been the addition of the Smoke Chief Cold Smoke Generator. Now, Smokehouse Products does have a product that allows for the complete smoking of an over-sized turkey or giant roast of beef. The new Smoke Chief Cold Smoke Generator simply attaches right to you backyard barbecue and fully smokes just about anything your appetite desires.

As for me, it took me a day or two of moaning the demise of my old friend the Big Chief before I was heading to the local tackle shop to adopt another Big Chief. I pulled him out of the box and he came shiny and new, but in less than a month of constant use, he’s already starting to take on the appearance of my original old friend.

Except this time around he won’t smoking out his business where he can get in the way of another lunatic behind the wheel.


Author’s note-

All Big and Little Chiefs come with a nifty little recipe booklet. There’s also hundreds of different brines and hints on how to enjoy the art of smoking. Still the simplest and one the best is the old “original” Luhr Jensen  EASY CURE SMOKED FISH

  • 1 quart of water
  • ½ cup of non-iodized salt
  • ½ cup white sugar

Brine Instructions

  1. Mix water, salt and sugar to completely dissolve.
  2. Add chunks, fillets or small fish. Completely immerse fish.
  3. Brine chunks of 1” thickness 8 to 12 hours in a refrigerator or cool location.
  4. Brine fillets to ½ inch or small fish 2 to 4 hours.
  5. Rotate fish, chunks or steaks occasionally.
  6. Remove from brine and rinse each piece in cool water.
  7. Place on plastic towels.
  8. Pat dry. In an hour or two or even longer you will notice the fish taking on a tacky glaze.
  9. Fish is now ready for the smoker.

Thick chunks and steaks should be smoked from 8-12 hours using 3 pans of wood chips. 

Fillets of ½ inch should be smoked 5-8 hours using 2 pans of wood chips

Small fish and small fillets should be smoked 2-4 hours using one or two pans of wood chips. 

Don’t be afraid to experiment with spices and juices when making the brine or for that matter the amount of chips for desired smoke flavor.

Watch the timing, but remember with this unit you cannot turn up the heat.

smoked salmon fish

Smoking fish or meats properly, should really be referred to as SLOW SMOKING FISH OR MEATS.

- written by Darryl Choronzey


Get an Incredible Deal on the Mini Chief from Smokehouse Products!




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1 comment

Darryl, With the Little Chief smoker, will the smoking time be longer in colder temps e.i. 30 degrees or lower? Great article. Where do I send a sympathy card?


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