Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat forever. Give a man fish and he’ll barbecue them to perfection for 40 years.
Port Alberni resident Art Wynans, 80, has been barbecuing fish at the Port Alberni Salmon Festival for more than four decades.
“I’ve been at it since day one and I’ve loved it ever since,” the married father of five said.
The only year Wynans was not able to barbecue fish was in 2009, when he spent a month in an induced coma after being severely injured in a cycling accident. It took him the better part of a year to recover.
Wynans came to Port Alberni in 1955 after emigrating from Holland, where fish were plentiful: just not the kind you catch in the salmon festival.
“We had herring there – salted herring, pickled herring, fresh herring,” Wynans said.
Wynans is sturdily built with sinewy arms denoting a life of hard work.
He handles cooking the fish on a rack over the fire with ease, his technique smoother than that of the younger man standing next to him.
Wynans was a member of the Kiwanis Club when the local Tyee Club asked them to help with the first salmon festival fish barbecue and Bavarian gardens.
Wynans had never barbecued a fish before, “but you have to start somewhere,” he said.
Barbecuing fish has changed. A large barbecue is now used instead of an open pit with bricks.
The number of fish barbecued in a weekend has also changed over the years.
The group sold five fish and a dozen beers that first weekend 40 years ago. Today, they regularly cook more than 5,000 pounds of fish in a weekend. “That’s a lot of fish and a lot of work,” Wynans said.
The barbecue recipe is roughly the same as it was 40 years ago and remains a sworn secret. “We decided back then that we needed a constant recipe and we still use it today,” Wynans said.
While the barbecued salmon recipe is a secret, cooking it is not. “Use alder wood for a nice burn and good smoke, keep the fish moist, and float it over the fire when you cook it,” he said.
The best advice Wynans has for budding barbecuers is simply to get it right the first time around. “Whatever you cook you have to eat so you better do it right,” he said.
Wynans has never entered the salmon derby and doesn’t think about it. “I’m too busy cooking the fish,” he said.
One memory that stands out distinctly from salmon festivals past involves the beer gardens. “They used to serve beer in glasses back then and I remember when whole tables of guys would pound the tables with their glasses for more beer,” he said.
The best part of salmon fest is knowing that it will carry on. “My family—my sons and grandchildren—have stood behind me and helped make this happen,” Wynans said.