There’s a fine line between being a conservationist and being a zealot. That’s why both of my kids will be getting a refresher course in the coming days on how to properly dispatch, clean and gut a wild trout. Over my dead body will they succumb to zealotry.
Now, it won’t be a native trout, mind you. But they will each clean a wild fish, hatched and reared in the water from which they will yank it. Hell, it’s going to take more than one trout, too—not only will I demonstrate how to slide the knife into the vent and slice up the belly to the gills, but I’ll ensure both of my children demonstrate their adeptness at keeping a fish for the frying pan. They may have to practice more than once, and I’m totally fine with that.
In some insulated circles in this country, the mere promotion of killing and cleaning trout—any trout, apparently—“sends the wrong message.” God forbid we show people how it’s done. That might be considered “dangerous,” or so I was told during a recent email exchange with someone of the zealot ilk.
The day our kids lose the ability to kill, gut and clean a fish caught in the wild is the day we can kiss our fishing goodbye. When fishing becomes purely recreational, and no lessons about life and death are taught or learned, and no nutritional value is gleaned from the fish we cherish and the waters we love, we will have a hell of a tough time defending our desire to simply “play with our food” and then let it swim away.
Keep in mind that this comes from a true believer in the value of catch-and-release angling, as both a conservation tool, and in most cases, the right thing to do by our fellow anglers. But, as I’ve said before, some fish need to die to accomplish the restoration of native fish in the waters where they belong. And if non-native fish need to die, we (and the anglers who come after us) need to know how to properly clean and prepare these fish for a meal.
Suggesting that teaching the fine art of fish cleaning sets a bad precedent is where the real danger lies. It makes things absolute. Black and white. No room for compromise, common sense or the application of that common sense to a conservation challenge. How would you rather see non-native fish culled from a trout stream where they don’t belong? By anglers keeping as many as they can reasonably clean and eat? Or by the application of rotenone that essentially nukes all aquatic life in a stretch of river or stream (not to discount rotenone as a very effective tool in the effort to restore native trout to their home waters where it’s appropriate)?
I’ll take the former.
My grandfather taught me to quickly kill and clean trout we intended to keep. I kept a lot more trout when I was a kid than I do now, and that’s largely because, in the high country of Colorado in the 1970s, non-native trout were part of the Rocky Mountain largesse.
But even then, my grandfather knew which flavor he preferred. Back then, cutthroat trout were simply called “natives.” They were released. Always. Non-native brook trout? They were almost always destined for the frying pan—after they were killed, cleaned and gutted, of course. I’m almost certain my grandfather didn’t release cutthroats because they swam in the waters where they belonged. They were just special fish. And, even then, they were becoming rarer and rarer, thanks to the encroaching brook trout (and, I suppose, rainbows and browns, too).
“They taste better, anyway,” he said of brookies. And after sampling everything from rainbow and brown trout to Arctic grayling, I agree—the invasive little char that have overtaken so many native trout streams in the Rockies do, indeed, taste better. Rolled in salt, pepper and corn meal, and fried in melted butter, there may not be a better meal to be had over a camp stove. I suspect that a exotic rainbow trout caught in an Appalachian trout stream where brookies are native tastes pretty damned good, too.
I remember watching my grandfather clean trout streamside. I remember, too, when he handed me his knife and the next fish on the willow branch and told me to try it. I clumsily slid the knife into the fish’s vent, and immediately pushed it too deep into its gut cavity, penetrating the flesh. His huge hands guided my small ones, and I remember just how sharp he kept his “fishing knives.” The blade slid quickly up the fish’s pale belly, all the way to its gills.
“Now,” he said, “Run your thumb backwards up the spine and push all the guts out.”
Fascinated by the viscera, I pushed it forward until it erupted out of the fish near its neck.
“Now rinse it off,” he said. I plunged the fish’s carcass into the freezing cold water. “Do it again. You have to get everything.”
This process is necessary. Hell, it’s sacred. And, when done in the right place to the right fish, it’s a good thing for fisheries conservation, and a good thing for anglers.
At its heart, fishing is a consumptive sport, even though many of us today rarely actually “consume” fish. But for the sake of its future, we ought to be teaching the next generation of trout anglers how to consume fish responsibly—it’s part of the conservation compact and the effort to restore our native trout.
And that starts with killing, gutting and cleaning fish. The real danger lies in letting this process become a lost art, for then we risk letting the foundation of the craft we love crumble and collapse.