Deboning: If you plan to broil or smoke your catch, you’ll also need to fillet it. Starting just to one side of the dorsal fin, cut along the backbone from the head to the tail. A standard pocketknife works fine if the blade is sharp. Continue slicing down and around the rib cage until the fillet peels free. Repeat on the other side of the fish.
This is the cooking method of choice when you’re hiking in areas that prohibit campfires. It’s also ideal for tender, flaky fish like trout, walleye, perch, and bluegill. You’ll need a nonstick skillet and spatula. A heat diffuser comes in handy when you have a big fish and small skillet.
If you can build a campfire, this old Boy Scout method will produce a perfect meal every time with any type of fish. The vegetables add flavor and vitamins, and the aluminum foil holds in those yummy natural juices. Skilled foragers may skip the dried veggies in favor of fresh-picked mushrooms, onion grass, and wild spices or even a bit of kelp (rinse well) or a handful of blueberries. See recipe for Resurrection Salmon, below.
This is frontier-style cooking at its best, with a snapping, crackling fire and a seared, slightly crispy fish. Carry a small backpacker’s grill with you from home (see Outfitting, May). Before building your campfire, make a rock platform for the grill. Positioning the grill no more than 6 inches above a bed of white-hot coals. See recipe for Voodoo Salmon, below.
This is my favorite way to fix fish in the backcountry, and a sure bet to amaze and delight your hiking partners. You’ll need a smaller, cooler campfire, plus a grill and a canopy to capture the smoke. I once had great success with a tin washbasin my wife and I found while fishing a salmon run in Alaska. An aluminum-foil dome about 2 to 3 feet wide and 1 foot high, or a thick canopy of green boughs from a fir tree will also work. (Look for recent deadfall; do not strip a live tree.)
Another critical element is the wood chips or shavings you’ll throw on the coals to produce the smoky flavor. Alder, mesquite, and hickory are my favorites; pack them in or scavenge around camp. You’ll also need a small backpacker’s grill or improvise one by braiding thin, green branches in a basket weave. (Again, deadfall only. Don’t cut live branches!)
See recipe for Captain Jim’s Smoked Trout, below.
Don’t Lure A Bear
You’re not the only critter that likes fish. Here’s how to avoid an unexpected visit.
Besides bacon and berry pie, there’s nothing that attracts bruins quite like the aroma of fish. To protect yourself from midnight visits, follow some simple but critical rules for keeping a clean camp.
- If you’ve seen bears near your fishing hole or heard that they’re prevalent and aggressive in the neighborhood, throw back your catch. Cooking it isn’t worth the risk. You may even want to think twice about making any casts at all.
- Situate the kitchen area at least 200 feet downwind of your tent, and hang your food bags 200 feet from both. Vacate the kitchen area as soon as you’re finished doing dishes.
- Avoid touching your face, clothes, and any gear when cleaning and cooking fish. Clean up with premoistened towelettes (hang used ones in your bear bag), or wash your smelly hands in a pot of warm soapy water.
- Burn the guts and carcass completely. If you can’t build a fire, toss them far out into the lake, stream, or river.
- Clean your dishes and utensils in hot, soapy water. If you didn’t pack soap, use sand, dirt, or ashes to scrub them, and rinse with boiling water. Don’t forget to wash everything you may have touched! Pour the rinse water through a small sieve into an 8-inch-deep cathole that’s far from a water source. Pack out any collected particles. I once neglected to wipe two water bottles, and they were shredded during the night by some large-toothed animal that fancied the oil residue on the lids and sides.
- Hang all your dishes and utensils as well as any clothes stained with fish oils. In grizzly country, you may want to hang the clothes you cooked in as well.