Eat a Trout Once in a While

by | Apr 15, 2020 | 33 comments

I stood next to him on the bank, and I watched my uncle kneel in the cold riffle. Water nearly crested the tops of his hip waders while he adjusted and settled next to the flat sandstone rock that lay between us. He pulled out the Case pocket knife again, as he’d done every other time that I’d watched this fascinating process as a young boy.

“Hand me the biggest one,” my uncle said, with his arm outstretched and his palm up.

So I looked deep into my thick canvas creel for the first trout I’d caught that morning. Five trout lay in the damp creel. I’d rapped each of them on the skull after beaching them on the bank, right between the eyes, just as I’d been taught — putting a clean end to a trout’s life. I handed the rainbow trout to my uncle and smiled with enthusiasm.

“He took my minnow right behind that dead-fall where we started this morning. Remember that?” I said. “You didn’t catch anything there!”

I wagged my finger toward my fishing mentor. And I felt proud that I, a ten year old boy, had out-fished my uncle, if just this once. Because in the creel around my shoulder were five trout to his three. Looking back, all these decades later, I realize that he probably led me toward each one of those trout. And he might have even sandbagged his own catch, just to make my day. Nevertheless, I felt like I’d accomplished something special. And sure enough, I had.

My uncle smiled back. “That’s a good one,” he said, taking the semi-stiff trout in his own hand.

He turned it upside down and put his thumb through a gill plate. Then I watched him insert the pocket knife in the anal vent and slice through the white belly skin, all the way up to behind the jawbone. He made two quick slits under the neck and pushed the knife forward, making a clean exit above the bottom teeth. Next, he pushed his finger into the throat of the trout, and with one quick sweep rearward, all the organs fell from the body of my fish.

“Here,” my uncle said to me. And he handed to me a suddenly lighter trout. “Go ahead and clean out the blood line.”

I took the fish and slid my thumbnail along the inner spine of the trout, pushing away the dark, clotted blood in a parallel line from the bottom to the top of the fish. I saw my uncle nod with approval as I finished the job, rinsing the trout in the clear rippled water. Then he motioned for me to lay it on the flat rock. And I did.

We both stared at the fish, pausing as the moment pulled from within us a natural submission — humility and respect.

“Here. You try the next one,” he said. Reaching across his body, my uncle dug into his own canvas creel and revealed the biggest prize of the day. Then he handed me the trout and the knife together. And I gutted my first trout under his watch.

I’m forty-four years old now. And I’ve repeated this teaching process with each of my young sons. I feel that I’m handing down something important — something special to them. Their natural reverence for the routine is deep — same as mine was. They understand that taking a life is significant. And removing the vital organs from an animal teaches us, first hand, the reality of what happens every time we eat meat, fish or poultry.

Hunters understand this. But many modern anglers miss it.

Catch and release is so ingrained in our fly fishing culture that most of my good fishing friends never keep fish — ever. All of the sudden, I’m the odd one, because I enjoy eating a mess of trout now and then.

It’s important to me, and I’m grateful that my boys love cooking up trout as much as I do. It’s something we look forward to. Catching and cleaning our kill bonds and connects us to the experience of catching a fish in a way that might be missed if you’ve never sliced open the upper stomach contents of a trout to see what it’s been eating.

Yes, we do that too. Last time, we found crayfish parts, mayfly nymphs and a large, living hellgrammite. Aiden (nine years old) was stunned. And he watched wide-eyed when the big, alien-legged insect swam away in the shallows.

“That was just in a trout’s stomach!” he said.

It sure was.

An handful of salamanders

These are the things that tie my sons not only to their past, but to the natural world itself. They connect us all. Sure, you can read about this in a book or learn it in a classroom. But until you’ve killed the animal, removed its organs, filleted it and cooked flesh over a flame, you don’t really understand the cycle completely. You’ll never feel it the same way.

Soon after that first trout that I cleaned for myself, my uncle gave me a Case knife. And I still use it to this day. It stays in my vest until needed. My history is strong with that knife. And I remember my past as I hold it. It links me to those days, those memories of the woods, of family and friendship. With each trout cleaned, I think of my uncle and his brother — my father. These strong men were my first fishing friends. And I’m thankful.

We keep a couple dozen stocked trout every year but never the wild ones. And, in fact, I haven’t killed a wild trout for over a decade. But I think I may do it again soon. I know some places where brook trout are so numerous, in such remote areas, that taking five brookies for the pan won’t hurt a thing. And I want the boys to see the contrast of a wild brookie. The flesh is salmon colored. The meat is sweeter.

When keeping trout for a meal is the objective, the intensity of fishing is different. Set the hook, and the adrenaline kicks in because the stakes are higher — especially if the fishing is slow and your stomach is growling. The boys feel it. And their interest is more focused when we set out to keep a few trout for the day. It’s just another thing that gets us out on the water together.

Last weekend, I took my sons to the same small stream that I camped beside when I was a boy. It’s deep in the Pennsylvania wilderness, and it’s still stocked. The fishing is poor compared to what we’re spoiled with back home. But I thrive on tradition. I enjoy walking the same land I did with my uncle, with my father and my grandfather. Those moments and memories flood back to the surface, and they carry even more weight when my own sons are by my side.

We caught a nineteen-inch stocked brown trout within the first hour. And we killed it without hesitation. Because meat was our goal. It’s the only trout we killed that morning. An hour or so later, we cleaned and filleted the fish, then grilled it streamside. Not too many things turn out the way you had them planned. But this was close.

Fish hard, friends.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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33 Comments

  1. Growing up I disliked fish, but I loved fishing even though my family liked fish but never fished. In college I went backpacking in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. I brought my fly rod and a friend asked that I keep a trout to eat. That Brook Trout was amazing. I typically only keep fish while backpacking. In the Winds it’s 100% guilt free, most people consider the Brooke as an invasive species, though to be fair the Winds waters were historically barren.

    Reply
    • Very good article. My adult son reminded me of this recently that keeping trout here and there is not only legal but it’s healthy for the fisheries. There is a bag limit for a reason and it’s been calculated by those in the state fisheries departments to ensure sustained fish health of that local water. I have become so accustomed C&R as a fly fisher that I don’t even think about it and keeping a fish almost seemed shameful…..it isn’t. I still release the majority, but I won’t be quite so rigid about if catching the right fish in the right water leads to keeping one here and there.

      Reply
      • I agree with everythign you said, but this part I don’t:

        “there is a bag limit for a reason, and it’s been calculated by those in the state fisheries departments to ensure sustained fish health of that local water.”

        That simply isn’t the case here. The creel limit is standard, statewide, and is not tailored for each fishery. I wish it was. That would be a great thing.

        Dom

        Reply
  2. Great story Dom. Used to keep and eat some of my fish as a kid, even though I didn’t like it. I’m thinking next time out I’ll bring a few home for the fam to eat.

    Reply
  3. Great story! I too will eat a fish once in awhile, without guilt. It has always been part of the sport for me. While I’ve adopted the catch and release philosophy for trout and bass fishing, we will still eat a couple around the camp fire.

    Reply
  4. Great article. I kept 2 fish earlier this week while out with my 3 year old and 5 year old. I’m sick of all the people shaming those who keep a fish now and then. I pulled them from a river with over 4,000 trout per mile and I know if I had ran into someone where I had pulled off I would have heard an earful.

    Reply
    • That’s too bad. I don’t know that I’ve ever been shamed for keeping trout. And I’m glad about that.

      Dom

      Reply
  5. Yes, I’m all for eating hatchery trout, especially if they were stocked on top of a wild population.

    Reply
  6. Great job, so important to understand our connection to the planet, to realize we are a part of, not separate from nature. Once while guiding a family on a BWCA canoe trip I had a young woman who was heading to college in the fall. Here goal of the trip was to catch, kill, clean, and eat a fish. She wanted to be part of the process of life. She caught a walleye. I showed her how to fillet it, which she did, somewhat butchering a bit. Then as I was cooking dinner she was waiting to cook “her fish” and she asked how do you know which fillets are from my fish? I held up one of the butchered fillets and we all laughed.

    Reply
  7. Good article. We never keep freshwater fish (trout is too bony to deal with IMO for the small amount of meat you get) but in the salt we always keep some of the better eating inshore fish that are large enough to get decent amounts of meat out of (e.g. flounder/fluke, slot redfish, large pompano, striper, etc) to eat. My boys love to see the fish get cleaned and ALWAYS ask to cut open the stomach and see what the fish’s last meal was.

    Reply
  8. Well said. Fishing is a blood sport and I feel there is a stronger connection with the ecosystem and therefore more concern with its well-being if one harvests from it. But certainly there need to be regulations and where I live, the Driftless region, too many of the quality fish are taken out. What do you think of slot limits?

    Reply
    • “therefore more concern with its well-being if one harvests from it.”

      I think that’s a great point. By killing a trout once in a while, most of us might have even more concern and respect for the ones we don’t kill.

      Slot limits: I’m hugely in favor of them. To me, they make the most sense, if trout are to be taken. No doubt, in my opinion.

      Dom

      Reply
  9. Dom, re: previous post.
    here is my email if that is required.

    Reply
  10. Great article and I agree with your position completely. In the fall, I like to go after whitefish and I keep them. They are thought of as trash fish locally, and many think they are damaging the trout fishing and don’t even return them to the water, they just toss them. Truth is, they’re every bit as tasty as trout – same bone structure, too.

    Reply
  11. I enjoyed this article very much. As a kid growing up in a very lower middle class family of seven in NJ I was was the only angler. And I always brought home every trout I caught because as a family we needed protein and most of us liked fried trout. I received my first fly rod and reel as a 16th birthday gift and it opened up a whole new realm of fishing opportunities for me. Six decades have passed since that time and I have transitioned to mostly to a catch and release angler….occasionally keeping a few trout for my wife and I to enjoy for a meal. I actually wish they were wild trout because as the article notes wild trout have a beautiful flesh color and distinctive flavor….but mostly it’s just stocked trout cooked with some good recipes I’ve developed to enhance their relatively bland flavor. I have a fond memories of a few fresh wild Brook Trout “curling up” in a pan of very hot bacon grease over a wood fire.

    Reply
    • Oh yeah! Bacon grease is another thing that makes everything taste good.

      Dom

      Reply
      • My wife doesn’t fish but loves battered fried fresh trout ( as do I- my dad and uncle taught me and my cousins the same way you learned). I’ll definitely keep a couple 2-3 times a season to cook up- makes a great dinner for two! 90+ % of my fishing is catch and release, and especially the wild NH brookies which are my favorite to try to fool.

        Reply
  12. Great story. Our family always camped on a stream not too far from Granby in Colorado. My boys caught their first wild brookies in a beautiful meadow up there, and we always killed some for breakfast. I’m perfectly fine keeping some brookies from an over-populated little creek, but I never kill wild rainbows or browns. I’d rather buy trout in a store than kill a stocked rainbow. That’s a ver nice salmo trutta your boy is holding!

    Reply
    • Agree on the wild brookies!

      The trout in the stores around here actually are straight from the local hatcheries.

      Yeah, that was a good sized trout. Nubby fins and washed out colors though. And it honestly had no business being in the small stream it was stocked in. But it was a fun catch for us and provided a good meal for all.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  13. Sounds like trial balloon for your next album: Eat a Trout.
    I hear that Eat a Peach was already take. Ha! Stay safe all.

    Reply
    • I don’t ever keep any fish but the other night while driving to my camp I stopped to fish. Fishing was good…really good. Realizing I planned on pasta with canned sauce your article came to mind. I kept a nice 15″ stockie and grilled it that night. It was great. Two days later on my way home I stopped at the same river, caught over a dozen and kept three for my family and gave two to my friend, a former vegetarian of 32 years who now hunts deer. I also shared your article with him. Thanks for your writing

      Reply
  14. Not a fan of eating trout , don,t like the taste. Now if they tasted like walleye I would be filling the freezer with those pellet heads . Great article as always , Dom

    Reply
    • I bread them. Everything’s good breaded and fried.

      Thanks, Barry.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  15. Love smoked trout and grilled trout are good too. The bones fall off the meat pretty easily by pulling on the top of the spine.

    Reply
  16. Thank you for writing this. I remember my father teaching me the same thing and cooking it streamside. I look forward to this with my boy also. I’m a big believer in catch and release but I’ll eat a trout here and there. Especially if I’m up in the mountains camping. Great perspective and having it come from you gives this real credibility. Thanks.

    Reply
  17. I’m in my late fifties. I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life. I’m emphatically NOT one of “those” vegetarians who are all self-righteous and judgmental about it, nor do I believe that eating meat in and of itself is a bad thing. It’s simply that I don’t support the factory/commercial meat industry – if someone truly hunts/fishes their meat and provides their family’s sustenance this way, I have a lot of respect for that. But I myself choose to not be a hunter; and therefore I don’t eat meat.

    But I’ve recently taken up fishing (within the last year)…….something I did in my early life and enjoyed ( a LONG time ago!). For whatever reason, it was something that pulled me in, felt right to do, and I followed that urge. I’m absolutely loving it. And by the way, this website has been an enormous inspiration and teacher…thank you, Dom!

    So, the question is……does this vegetarian eat the fish? And the answer is….absolutely. I release the vast majority of my catch. But I feel it is something of a responsibility to consume at least a few fish now and then. It IS being part of a natural cycle, and it IS healthy for myself and ecosystem. So, here and there I keep a couple, pay my respects, feel a sense of gratitude, and proceed to clean/gut/cook them up. And they have been delicious to boot.

    Am I still a vegetarian? Essentially, yes. But I guess I’m one who occasionally eats a fish or two that I’ve caught. I’m fine with that.

    Reply

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