Faint splashing sounds filtered through the sun-dappled forest from a clearing 50 yards ahead. “D’ya hear that?” asked Steve. “Yeah,” I whispered, “maybe a beaver. Or a bear cub enjoying an afternoon swim.” Steve, James, and I had wandered a half-mile off the trail to find a skeeter-free campsite. After 10 days of intermittent bog hiking, the prospect of a wildlife encounter that didn’t involve buzzing, biting, or stinging made us almost giddy. Dropping our packs, we crept forward.
As we stepped out of the trees and onto the shore of a small, perfectly round lake, our jaws hit the ground. The spectacle before us seemed implausible: dozens of the biggest, fattest, leapingest rainbow trout we’d ever seen, clearing the lake’s surface in a display that defied the laws of gravity and common sense.
We raced for the communal fishing rod and quickly hooked three monster specimens. We rubbed the rainbows with olive oil, and sprinkled on pepper, parsley, and oregano. We then wrapped the trout in aluminum foil and baked them on the coals of a small fire. Our mouths watered. Our stomachs growled. Our bodies quivered with anticipation, smelling a respite from our fat-free, flavor-free regimen of lentil mush, dried hummus, and banana energy bars.
Then we feasted. And what a feast that was. Fresh. Bursting with flavor. Restorative. “No four-star chef,” mumbled James through a juicy mouthful, “will ever match this meal.”
Back home, a friend scolded us for taking the fish, pointing out that many backcountry bodies of water suffer from overfishing. True enough, and in 99.99 percent of the cases I’m a devout catch-and-releaser. But there are places-remote streams and lakes thick with fish-that can handle the occasional harvest by a hungry backpacker. Our pond lay 100 miles into the Canadian Rockies and eight days from the nearest trailhead. The only human we’d seen so far was a ranger making her once-a-summer reconnaissance.
So what’s the moral of this fish story? That there’s nothing like the succulent taste of fresh-caught fish to reawaken tastebuds and tummies deadened by a bland trail diet. And it’s okay to indulge when you discover a lake or river that can spare a few finned inhabitants. But don’t take my word on it. “It’s okay to keep one now and then, but get the land manager’s approval first,” says Ericka Houck, outreach coordinator for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). “We recommend that people contact the appropriate management agency to learn about state regulations and the health of the stream or lake they plan to fish.”
To transform your catch of the day into a mouth-watering meal, you’ll need some simple cooking skills, a sharp knife, and a packet of spices. Following are tips for cleaning fish and four ways to cook ’em. Each method comes with a trail-tested recipe. Practicing at home will improve your chances of culinary success.
Cleaning: Fish tastes best when killed, cleaned, and cooked right away. Once you land a keeper, grab a rock, give the fish one swift blow to the top of the head, then slit open the belly. Remove the entrails with your finger or a spoon, then rinse the cavity. If you don’t like fish heads, lop your catch’s off with a quick cut just behind the gill flaps. (See “Don’t Lure A Bear” for directions on safely disposing of the smelly scraps.) This cleaning technique, called butterflying, is all you need to do if you’re frying or baking.