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Angling for a terrific catch? Try trout

Thursday, April 15, 1999

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Experienced trout anglers work to find them, love to catch them, but hate to see one die.

Because of the delicate nature of trout biology and the post-industrial nature of most Pennsylvania waters, few of the fish reproduce. The state's trout fishery is almost entirely artificial. Trout are bred and raised in hatcheries and stocked in state-regulated lakes and streams in a program financed by the anglers, who use it through the sale of fishing licenses and "trout stamps," required to fish in official trout waters. The five-month regular season for trout begins Saturday.

Most environmentally conscious anglers consider trout to be far too valuable to catch only once. They safely release them after the battle.

Still, the best way to hook a kid on fishing is to allow him or her to proudly bring home the evening meal, and in frequently stocked, heavily fished waters, the sacrifice of a few trout is entirely appropriate. If you're going to harvest a crop as valuable as trout, however, it's wise to do it humanely and efficiently, and to derive as much dining pleasure as humanly possible from the experience.

Three types of trout are placed into Pennsylvania lakes and streams: brown, rainbow and brook trout. Sometimes big, specially bred palomino browns are slipped in as novelty trophies. The larger lake trout, legal to catch and native to Lake Erie, is not stocked.

Browns are colorfully spotted with orange and white circles and prefer stiff currents. Rainbow trout glimmer with a multicolored sheen and often seek the sanctuary of deep, slow pools. Brook trout are smaller but fiercely aggressive and hearty enough to maintain natural populations in some streams.

Early in the season, stocked trout are newcomers to their temporary homes. Their flesh is still pale white from a diet of hatchery meal. After a month or so of feeding in a natural setting, however, the meat turns a rich pink and the taste grows more gamey. Veteran trout that have survived the early-season onslaught are smarter, harder to catch and far better tasting.

In general, browns are more flavorful than rainbows, and spunky little brookies taste more robust and wild.

Nothing ruins the delicate flavor of trout faster than a slow death by suffocation and spoilage in the hot sun. Anglers who dangle their catch from wire stringers to impress the crowds are only showing off their ignorance.

If you decide to keep your catch, kill it quickly and humanely with a deep poke of a knife behind the head. Trout are generally too small and bony to fillet. As quickly as is practical, slit the catch from the anus to the gills, remove the organs and gill assembly, and scrape away the murky material lining the spine. Pat dry, carry in a zip-lock-style bag, and store the bagged fish on ice as soon as possible.

Trout scales are so soft and tiny they look more like skin. The taste is fishier than the flesh, but allow your dinner guests to decide whether they want to eat it. Some anglers decapitate their quarry at the stream, and some cooks do it in the kitchen. De-boning the entire fish is easier, however, if it's done at the table with the head and tail intact.

As with most fish, trout is extremely easy to overcook. It takes only a few minutes on medium low heat for the slick, spongy flesh to whiten. When the meat flakes off easily with a fork, it's done.

Inexperienced dinner guests who dive in with forks and knives blazing will soon be spitting out globs of meat laced with dozens of tiny bones. There's a civilized method, however, to almost ensure that every bite will be virtually bone-free. At the table with the cooked trout lying on its side, pierce the skin behind the head and glide the blade gently across the dorsal, or spine, bones, past the dorsal fin to the tail.

If you're careful, you'll feel the separation between the left and right back muscles as the knife skims across the vertical spine bones. With the flat of the blade pressing downon the dorsal bones, insert a fork into the cut just over the knife and simply flake off a slab of meat. If you're doing it right, you'll see the thin white bones sliding easily out of the meat as it passes. When the meat has been removed from one side, insert the flat of the blade behind the head and just under the visible dorsal bones to hold the meat down.

Lift the head straight up with the fork and the entire denuded skeleton and tail should pull away easily, leaving an attractive and great-tasting entree. Each recipe makes a single serving.

Store-bought trout are generally 11 to 12 inches in length, weigh a little over a half-pound including heads and tails, and have been de-boned, but usually not very well.

Anglers can't guarantee the size of their catches, but a good rule of thumb is one trout per serving. For smaller fish just above the legal limit of 7 inches, increase the proportion of vegetables or the size of the side dishes.

For brown or rainbow trout over 15 inches, carefully separate the meat from the bones at the stove and serve as a fillet with the skin-side up.

Fresh trout goes exceptionally well with a cold, crisp, moderately priced white wine.

All said, wild game cooking works best when animal instincts take over in the kitchen. Experiment a little and feel your way through the culinary waters without paying strict attention to the printed word.

Think of the accompanying recipes as overgrown trails that merely suggest the right direction -- as imprecise as tree moss vaguely pointing the way north.

John Hayes is a lifelong angler and the former managing editor of Outdoor Odyssey magazine.

Related Recipes:

Trout Mahoning
Loyalhanna Gold
Trout Martini

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