Some of my best memories are with my dad and son fishing for lake trout or as dad called em Macks (mackinaw) on Flathead Lake here in Montana. We’d get up early, drive up to the lake be up there just at sun up and launch the boat on water that looked like glass. We’d watch the eagles and osprey overhead, there’d still be a chill in the air but knew it was gonna be a beautiful blue-sky day. Those were the good old days, there were many windy, overcast and stormy days that either forced us off the water or made us not launch at all. Dad knew the lake like the back of his hand and we’d troll along the east side of an island at about 80-120’ deep, the fish finder would beep and we’d start eating lunch at 9am. Dad knew many fisherman and they always talked shop, what tackle etc. Interestingly I would watch how differently the guys would handle the fish once caught. I need to be very clear, when we fished we caught to eat, there was no catch and release unless they were not legal. I have since fly fished and caught and released but that’s another article in itself.
The key to getting quality fish on the plate starts at the water’s edge or in our case on the boat. It doesn’t matter if you are fishing streams, rivers, creeks, lakes, or even the ocean. Handling the fish is basically the same. The flesh of fish is much more delicate than that of game meat. It decomposes much faster, it bruises much faster, and needs special attention. The special attention is that fish need to be handled with care, just squeezing the fish with our hands can bruise the meat, if you hold the fish by the tale it can separate the muscles and cause a poor appearance when cooking and serving. I’m speaking specifically to the trout and salmon family. There are some scale fish that are more hearty and resilient. The flesh of fish decomposes very fast so you want to keep the fish alive on a stringer, or in wet ferns in a creel, or in a live-well in cold water. The object is to keep the fish alive to prevent and/or slow the decomposition of the meat. If you cannot keep them alive then kill and for the larger fish bleed by cutting out the gills. Remove entrails and blood along the backbone asap. Keep the dressed fish on ice or as cold as possible.
From a chef’s perspective Trout are considered a round fatty fish with very small and few scales. Similar to salmon, tile fish, mackerel and bluefish. Due to the fat content these fish naturally have a stronger flavor/gamey flavor, some say even a muddy flavor. A fresh fish does not taste or even smell fishy. It is the fish that have not been handled properly that develop strong fishy smells and flavor. The signs of a fresh fish are clear eyes, red gills, firm flesh and fresh smell. Fish taste the best when eaten the same day they are caught. That is why we cook em streamside.
I’ve eaten everything from brookies, to large Lake Trout and everything in between, I do like cutthroat from high mountain lakes cooked over a fire the night we catch them. Don’t get much better than that. I’ve cooked 20 pan fried trout for breakfast in backcountry camps, they were caught that morning and we ate them like corn on the cob, eating the meat right off the bone.
Usually when filleting a round fish, I cut through the ribs but on large trout, I peel the fillet off the ribs. 99% of time I leave the skin on. Wash clean the slimy membrane, keep the cutting board clean and dry, pat dry the fish, and lay the sides opposite each other with skin side facing out. Wrap as tight as possible, vacuum seal, and freeze as fast as possible. The flesh of fish is much more delicate and the quality will lessen the longer it stays in the freezer.
Whereas some cuts of meat are best suited for a couple specific cooking methods, trout are suited for most all cooking methods. Trout can be cooked with all dry cooking methods such as stir fry, sauté, pan fry, deep fry, broil, grill, and roast/bake. Trout can be cooked by moist cooking methods such as boil/simmer, steaming, and poaching. Trout can be braised and stewed. I like to smoke trout as well. Don’t forget the cheeks on larger fish and of course crisp the skin/bacon for some added texture and flavor. Brining trout and smoking makes the fish last longer, changes its flavor profile, and give you many more food preparation selections. Other than serving trout fillets straight up, try using them in tacos, trout-like salmon cakes, on salads, in soups, their uses are endless.
Here are a few recipes for any member of the trout or salmon families.
Good Cooking, Chef Wutsch