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.
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.