John Hayes: How to take trout from the river to the kitchen

John Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Outdoors

PITTSBURGH — To make the most of the moment, determine why you're there. For the fish or for the fishing?

Trout fishing can be a thrill whether you are a catch-and-release fly angler or expected to bring something home for the frying pan. And if you're a kid contributing to the family dinner for the first time, sharing the catch can be a memory that lasts a lifetime.

Your stained or spotted adversary put up a fight worthy of respect. When it's all about the harvest, treat the trout right. Once it's off the hook, keep it alive on a stringer in the water or slip it into a livewell. If it's going straight to the cooler, painlessly put it out of its misery before putting it on ice.

Temperature control

If your catch is a meal waiting to happen, there is nothing more important than keeping it clean and cool.

"When I see guys dragging trout around all day on stringers, it makes me cringe," said Alex Ielase of Port Vue, a longtime Fishing Report contributor. "I want them to throw those fish in the freezer."

Unlike walleye, trout have a soft texture and take on the flavor of whatever else is in the pan. The best way to wreck a trout dinner is to leave the carcass hanging all day in the sun. Of course you want to show off your catch, but if you plan to eat it, keep it in the shade and on ice.

Bacteria spoils fish flesh. Penn State Extension — a free source of science-based information about animals, agriculture, gardening and food safety — cautions that bacteria can double in number every 20 minutes in the "temperature danger zone" of 40-140 degrees.

"Temperatures below 40 degrees will slow the growth of bacteria but will not kill them," according the extension website. "Bacteria capable of causing foodborne illness either do not grow at these refrigerator temperatures or grow very slowly.

"Spoilage bacteria, yeasts and molds [can] cause fish to spoil ... after days of refrigerated storage. Properly handled and prepared ... fish stored in a freezer at 0 degrees [can] last up to a year or so."

Fish cleaning prep

A little forethought before the first cut can make all the difference. Let's talk about slime.

The mucus covering all fish serves multiple functions. On trout it contains amino acids that prevent the fish from getting sunburned, and antimicrobial peptides protect it from fungal and bacterial infections. The slippery slime also provides lubrication that helps the trout to navigate and maneuver.

The mucus is edible but adds to that fishy flavor. When it's time to remove the slime, simply hold the fish in the water and wipe it with your bare hands until it's no longer slippery and you feel the tiny scales of the skin.

Leave the 9-inch Bowie knife at home. All you'll require is the sharp half-inch near the tip of the knife. You'll be safer and dinner will be less hacked to pieces if you use a thin 4-inch filet knife. It can't hurt to run it over a whetstone before you start.

Now find a calm spot on slow or still water, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

There are only two rules to cleaning a trout: Don't get cut and don't screw up dinner. Careful use of the small fileting tool will accommodate both. A light touch will avoid puncturing organs, intestines and fingers.

If you're harvesting big honking brown, rainbow, steelhead or lake trout, it's best to peel off thick filets free of the thin pin bones that make up a trout's skelature. Ielase said the size of the fish matters.


Fast filets

"The right fileting size is bigger than about 22-24 inches," he said.

"When I keep fish I make sure to bleed them right away — cut the gills and bonk 'em. You've got to get the blood out of the meat. Then I get them on ice right away even if I have to hike back to the car, where I always keep a cooler of ice. There's no point in fileting if you can't keep it cool. And I make sure to do the filet job that night."

Start with a clean sharp knife and a fresh cool trout lying on its side with its belly facing you and the table edge. Behind the gill plate, slice across the fish from the spine to the chest barely deep enough to feel the pin bones.

Glide the knife over the bones to just before tip of the tail, lift the blade and flip the filet so it's connected to the body by the skin at the tail. There, slide the blade between the skin and the filet until the flesh is removed.

Flip the fish so its back faces you and the table edge. Repeat the process on the other side. Lightly rinse the filets in cold, clean water to remove blood, bacteria and digestive enzymes.

"Wipe the [filets] with cloth or paper towels, put them in resealable storage bags or wrap in clear plastic and place them on ice," the Penn State Extension advises. "It is important to cool fish quickly to 35-40 degrees to prevent bacterial growth. Keep fish flesh out of direct sunlight."

There are a hundred variations on fileting. Ielase makes a cut above and across the tail to the bones, separating the filet from the body before flipping the fish and working on the other side. Some anglers remove the guts before fileting.

Field dressing

If the trout is hatchery size, generally 9-18 inches, it may be too small to filet without leaving pin bones. Consider field dressing.

If it is destined for the table, it's vital to get rid of the guts before the heat of the day. Dave Levdansky, a longtime trout fisherman, hunting and fishing camp owner and former state legislator from Forward, said if the catch can't be put on ice immediately, eviscerate it as soon as possible.

"Put a sharp knife into the vent and slit open the fish all the way to the point of the V below the gills," he said.

"Slip a finger in and pull out everything — gills, organs, intestines — and rinse it out with water. I use my thumb nail to scrape out the black blood vein under the spine, and rinse again. Put it on ice until you can get it to a refrigerator or freezer."

Levdansky uses a knife blade to lightly scrape off some of the tiny scales before rinsing again and dropping the trout into a plastic bag. If he doesn't have ice he at least keeps the fish out of the sun.

Some anglers take the harvest home or back to camp, clean it in the sink, toss the remains in the trash and hope wildlife stays out of the stinky garbage can.

It's probably easier and counterintuitively more hygienic to abandon the guts and bones at the water's edge, where something will likely eat it by morning.

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