When catch and release becomes catch and eat
By Bruce Smithhammer
I crest the ridge after three long days of Rocky Mountain backpacking to be greeted by an alpine valley that would have made the von Trapp family break into song. Glaciated peaks frame a lush bowl and a small, deep lake. In honor of the singing Austrians, I make a feeble attempt at a yodel, which serves only to alert local wildlife to the apparent presence of an angry, constipated goose.
I hike down to a flat spot by the water, drop my pack, and ferret out a bag of trail mix. I'd purchased this uninspiring concoction a few days before without much thought, in my usual rush to get in and out of the trendy resort-town co-op as fast as possible. The store clientele's preponderance of high-performance clothing, expensive clogs, and smart phones, and air of pseudo-sustainability, never fails to give me the willies.
Unfortunately, that hasty food-grab has left me with a bag of trail mix that seems to be composed primarily of reconstituted birdseed and some hard, dark pellets that may have been raisins at some point in the previous decade. Or they could be mouse turds. I figure the manufacturer's cost for this pound of gruel at 20 cents, though I'd paid $5.99.
I'm thinking about how that makes me as big a fool as the rest of the store's customers, when I notice dimples on the surface of the lake—the blood-stirring rings made by rising, feeding trout. All thoughts of setting up camp go out the window as I grab rod and reel. Maybe it's due to the long hike—or my dismay over the idea of eating rodent droppings for dinner—but my familiar sporting urge to offer a fly to rising fish is overshadowed by something more primeval: raw, well-earned hunger.
I'd spent the previous afternoon in a drainage a dozen miles away, having a glorious fly-fishing experience in a tributary full of hefty Colorado cutthroat trout. I'd lost count of how many fish I'd caught, though, to be honest, that would hardly be a telling detail, since I've always thought counting was a meaningless pursuit. Suffice it to say that there had been many and that they'd risen eagerly to dry flies until well after sundown. With Colorado cutthroats now occupying less than 5 percent of their historical range, I hadn't been tempted to keep any of them. I'd simply been grateful for the few minutes of interaction I'd had with each fish, happy to watch their sleek golden-red bodies slide away from my hand, back into the cool, clear water.
That, however, was yesterday. Now I'm standing knee-deep in icy water, perusing the possibilities in my small Altoids tin full of flies. I'd intentionally gone light on the food, having heard that many lakes in this mountain range were full of fish. If I'd been skunked, I would have gone hungry.
There are serious "trout technicians" who choose their flies based on somber, detailed analysis. They factor in time of day, weather patterns, water temperature, and relative humidity as they scrutinize a meticulous assemblage of flies featuring microscopically subtle variations. In my case, fly choice often comes down to, for lack of a better word, juju. Obvious, no-brainer hatches aside, I often couldn't tell you why I've picked a particular fly. My fingers simply float over the array until a mysterious force comes into play—the angling equivalent of a Ouija board. It seems to be just as successful as any other approach I've seen.
This time, however, my fly-selection strategy is more mundane than mystical. I'm not here simply to dabble in the art of deception for the sake of sport, or aesthetics. I need food, preferably of the freshly harvested, protein-rich variety. Fish are rising to small caddis flies flitting about on the water, and it would be tempting to try to mimic that, but I suspect that larger fish lurk beneath. So I pull out a weighty Krystal Flash Bugger, meant to imitate a leech—the trout's version of a chili dog with onions. I could have opted for killing efficiency and brought along a spinning rod and lure (or Power Bait, or dynamite), but even in matters of life and death, I believe, the quarry deserves a fighting chance. Perhaps subconsciously I'd also figured that I might somehow benefit from paying a painful price for shortcomings in my technique—that a grumbling stomach would, in the long run, make me a better angler.
It doesn't take long before I'm hooked into a fish, remote trout generally opting to taste first and ask questions later. As I reel the fish to my feet, I realize that it's a brook trout, a transplanted species that isn't native to these mountains or anywhere else within a thousand miles of here. It also happens to be my absolute favorite trout to eat, the backcountry equivalent of roast duck drizzled with orange glaze on a bed of truffled polenta, especially when compared with the vacuum-sealed grubbage I've been choking down the past few days.
Removing the fly, I take the 12-inch trout by the tail and whack its head on a rock hard enough to be sure that one blow will do the job. There's nothing worse than having to do this multiple times with a struggling fish. I insert the sharp blade of a small penknife at the anus and run it up to the gill plate. The innards fall out with a gentle pull. I run my thumbnail along the inside of the spinal column to remove the accumulated blood that would taint the taste. I wrap the fish in grass and place it in the shade of a rock, then turn to cast again.
By the time I'm nearing hypothermia, I've kept three fish and let a dozen others go. I get a small fire going, cut a few willow switches, whittle them into spikes, and hang a trout on each at an angle over the fire, high enough to ensure that they cook slowly. The smell of burning fir mixes with the scent of cooking trout and wafts up in a curl of smoke backlit by the fading light.
I pull the sticks from the fire and lay the trout on a plate. The skin and bones separate easily from the soft pink meat. I eat with my fingers, and the warm flesh dissolves in my mouth like the best chocolate I've ever eaten. Nothing I could have carried up here in my backpack could have approached the taste of these wonderful little creatures. And no packed-in food would have had less of a carbon footprint, or allowed me to eat more locally. I like to think that the folks back at the trendy co-op would agree.
Bruce Smithhammer is a freelance writer and fishing guide living in Teton Valley, Idaho.
This story was funded by the Sierra Club's Hunter-Angler Program outreach campaign.
Photo: iStockFood/Tom Hopkins Studio