In his mid-twenties, my friend Jeff walked away from his job to be a trout bum for a few months. It was a bold move, but a strategic one. Jeff had enough funds saved up to float him from late spring all the way into the fall, and he simply wanted to hang out, drink beer and catch trout for a while.
Some people hike the Appalachian Trail. Others take a year after school to travel across Canada or maybe backpack through Europe, and that’s nice, if you have that kind of money. Jeff just wanted to fish the hell out of Central Pennsylvania and be a trout bum for once. So that’s what we did.
At the time, my own lifestyle was pretty flexible. I’d already spent five or six years exploring Central and North-Central Pennsylvania during the day and playing music in clubs and bars at night. Gas was cheap then, and it was nothing for me to wake at dawn and travel north for a hundred miles. Along with my forever companion (a Border Collie) I roamed the valleys of the Allegheny mountains and spread east into the Northern Tier, picking off native brook trout and wild browns, walking, watching, learning and living. I returned most evenings to play gigs for the bars, but other times, I slept in the back of my Nissan Xterra. I’d wake again at dawn and get back to fishing.
It was a wonderful, peaceful time in my life, and it was important. Those years are when I really dialed in my trout game and when I truly learned the rivers of Central Pennsylvania, from their headwaters to their mouths.
So when Jeff “retired” that spring he joined me, and we had a hell of a good time. After spending so many years fishing only with Dylan (the Border Collie) it was a pleasure to fish with Jeff every day. He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever shared the river with. Witty to the core and harboring a deep sarcasm, Jeff is incapable of taking offense to much of anything. An easy-going guy like that is the perfect partner for banging around trout streams with for a few months.
Jeff and I both have the decidedly male trait of making laziness look like efficiency. Let me explain.
Jeff introduced me to better beer, specifically good IPAs. Why buy, pack, carry and drink Miller High Life when you can drink less of something that actually tastes good and gets the same results? It’s a simple cost/benefit analysis.
Jeff introduced me to better camping. Why pack a tent when you can sleep in the bed of the truck? Why bring a full bag of extra clothes when you already have what you need? Maybe an extra pair of socks and underwear really is enough for two days.
And why tie a bunch of extra dry fly patterns when a Parachute Adams gets the job done, day after day, fish after fish?
Is any of that really laziness? No. It’s strategic efficiency — a maximizing of limited time. Jeff’s bank account wasn’t bottomless, after all, and I knew my independent years without family obligations would end as soon as my wife and I had kids.
Those four memorable months, twelve years ago, ended with a “retirement party” for Jeff. We filled the driveway with cars, and it was a day full of laughs and friendship. It ended late, in a field behind my house, around a large campfire with more IPAs. We hung on through the tall, dewy grass that September night, because we could sense the end, or as some would sell it, a new beginning. It was both.
I miss Jeff, and I miss those good times. Shortly after, Jeff accepted a job offer in North Carolina. The cars leaving the driveway that night were from a group of friends who were mostly grad students, moving on and spreading out. Sam took a job across the country in Washington state. Daniel moved to Florida and started a family. Melissa and Scott moved away too. Distance separates, and there’s no way around it, because even the deepest friendships fall apart across the divide.
And that’s alright. It’s just the stages of living. But if you’re not careful, you may end up lonely, without a community and a group of people to call your own. My whole life, I’ve been aware of it — you have to form new friendships while preserving what you can of the old ones. But you must move on, because time surely does.
So I haven’t seen Jeff for many years now, but there’s one thing that keeps his friendship present to me — Jeff’s Chicken. Seriously. It’s a streamside staple.
It’s the perfect fisherman’s lunch, or dinner, or even breakfast I guess — if you want to go to that kind of trouble in the morning. Strike that — two bananas is the perfect fisherman’s breakfast.
Jeff’s Chicken was discovered early in the summer of Jeff’s retirement. He’s far too modest to put his name on something so simple, so I did it for him. All good things deserve a name, after all. I’ve grilled Jeff’s Chicken hundreds of times now, and it’s a hit with all but the vegetarians, vegans and the gluten-free crowd, who live a life far more complicated than I can ever understand.
So here it is. We’ll do this Pinterest style. It’ll be the first (and maybe last) entry in the Troutbitten Cookbook. Maybe it’s really all you need.
Ingredients (stuff to have)
- Chicken Breast
- Arnold’s Health Nut Bread
- American Cheese Slices
- Wegmans Zesty Savory Marinade
- Ziploc Bag
- Portable Grill
Prep (stuff you do first)
— Chicken breast. Buy the family pack (a whole bunch) because you’re gonna be hungry, and because it’s more cost effective and efficient to do this just once.
— Slice chicken breasts flat with your fish filleting knife, aiming to make hamburger sized saucers of chicken. Make these cuts. It’s worth it. Large chicken breasts take too long to grill, and thinner pieces take on more of the marinade anyway.
— Put the sliced chicken and a bunch of the marinade in a Ziploc bag. Don’t use cheap bags here, or you’ll pay for it later. You need a good thick bag with a solid closure, or it’ll leak raw chicken juice all over the ice in your cooler — not the end of the world, but not real awesome either.
— Marinate it for a long time. Some marinades actually advertise “one-hour marinade” on the bottle. That’s a joke. More time marinating means more flavor and softer chicken. Beyond two days in the sauce, though, and it’s a little much. So, marinating overnight is a good plan.
— After a long morning of fishing hard, there’s not much better than a good break at the tailgate with friends. You earned it, so sit down for a few minutes, drink a beverage and grill something.
— Small, portable propane grills are cheap, and most can take a beating for about five years before you have to invest another $30 to keep up with your streamside cooking.
— Keep this simple. You don’t need an elaborate setup or a bunch of utensils. Skip the paper plates too. I’ll confess that after years of flipping the chicken with a pocket knife or some random sticks, I now keep a pair of tongs inside the grill during transport. Whatever. I’m not a savage.
— Don’t overcook the meat. Just don’t. You can grill chicken breasts on pretty high heat — there’s very little fat, so not much flare up. These grills all run hot anyway, so take advantage of that, and get the job done in about ten minutes or less. Enjoy those ten minutes, though. Sink into your break. You earned it by fishing so damned hard.
— This is the good part. Now, I know you’re looking at the recipe above and thinking, “Why not use a bun?” Answer: because that’s not Jeff’s Chicken. Trust me, Arnold’s Health Nut is the perfect match here. It’s a hearty bread, flavorful and soft in just the right way.
— I guess you could go without the slice of American cheese, but why? And there’s no need for cheese on the grill. Just place in on the bread, put the hot chicken on the cheese, close it up and make a delicious sandwich.
— No, you don’t need mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion or other stuff. Jeff’s Chicken is about simplicity, and you don’t have time for all that mess. The four ingredients as they stand are a perfect match. Leave it alone.
— There shouldn’t be any variations. Don’t mess with a good thing. You could use a white bun, you could add a pickle, you could use some other marinade or provolone cheese. But that’s not Jeff’s Chicken, now is it?
— However, I know that you will change it, because you’re a bunch of fishermen — the same people who can’t leave a fly pattern alone at the vise. You have to tinker and change things, adding this and substituting that. Fair enough. But don’t tell me this recipe was just, “Meh . . . okay,” and give it 3 stars instead of 4, because if you changed anything, then you didn’t make Jeff’s Chicken . . . man.
If you don’t drive a pickup, then strap the grill to the luggage rack of your car for transport. It’ll get bugs on it. Gravel will ding it up in a few places that eventually rust, and all of that will remind you of happy times when you grilled stuff. Trust me; keep the grill on the outside of the vehicle. Otherwise your car’s interior will stink worse than your waders.
Cheers, Jeff! Your legend lives on.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N