A good professional smoker such as Calvin Tyler is wonderful to find because good amateur smoking is so hard to do. Home smokers generally have limited capacity -- perhaps 10 or 15 pounds of fish or meat at a time -- and involve a good deal of work.
I found inconsistency to be a big problem with home smokers, which are made by several companies and are fired either by electricity or charcoal. Because the heat output on my charcoal-fired rig was difficult to gauge and constantly changing, one time I'd get perfect, moist, smoked fillets, the next they'd come out either dried up or uncooked in the middle, even though the fish had cooked for the same length of time.
Tyler's trick for determining when fish are smoked is to watch for the fillets to "crack" along the seams of the meat. As soon as they start cracking apart, they're done, he said.
Electric or charcoal? Mike Ross, who works for Coleman Co., which used to make smokers but no longer does, said he prefers electric because the heat can be set low, at about 200 degrees, for slow cooking. Charcoal is harder to control, he said.
But Sue Lambert of the Brinkman Co., which makes both charcoal and electric smokers, said she prefers charcoal for fish because it gives a smokier taste.
Electric smokers are metal gadgets with a heating element in the bottom, over which the cook places a pan of commercially produced wood chips or sawdust to smolder away.
A charcoal smoker, which looks like a round charcoal grill, requires the cook to start a fire in the middle of the coals that then spreads slowly to outlying coals. The cook drops a few handfuls of water-soaked hickory, apple or other aromatic wood chips on top of the coals, which give the smoke its character.
In both cases, whatever is being smoked needs to be checked regularly over the course of the cooking, which could be anywhere from two to eight hours.
If it all sounds like a lot of work, it is. Presumably it gets easier with time. I never had the patience to find out.