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.
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.
T R O U T B I T T E N