Jim discusses keeping a fish or two for the table. 

Before I start out on this two-part set of notes and recipes, I know I’m in trouble. There will be many readers who will have turned the page already as they would never kill a trout. Not even to eat. For those of you who feel the same but are reading on anyway, please allow me to explain… or is that justify!

In the days when I was in the tackle trade, there were some youngsters who worked for me who would never divulge their secret fishing places, lest I’d go and murder some of ‘their’ trout!

Catch-and-release has become the mantra of many modern-day anglers and in many waters, where angling pressure might hurt trout stocks, this is the correct management objective. On the other hand, there are waters in Australia which have very good natural recruitment and others where successful stocking programs are in place. At its best, fisheries management in these places aims to allow anglers to take trout at a sustainable rate, usually with some kind of limit to size, numbers, or both.

Catch-and-release is good practice on many waters, but there are some places where taking a fish or two for the table does no harm.

A wild hen trout can deposit hundreds to more than a thousand eggs, in a redd scraped out of the gravel in a stream, then to be fertilised by her mate. They do this annually and if by chance the pair live for five or more years, the multiplication factor is amazing. In reality, Nature’s intention is really only to replace the original two adult trout. If more than that survive, then the population will expand, potentially leading to larger numbers of smaller trout.

A classic example of this is Great Lake in Tasmania. If one looks through the historical records for this water, before the Second World War, the trout averaged over four pounds and looking back even earlier than that, at the turn of the previous century, the trout averaged over eight pounds. The famous diary kept by Tom Earley from 1896 to 1901 attests to this.

Other striking examples are Tasmanian lakes like Pedder, Burbury and King William. They all once held large fish as the food supply boomed when the lakes first flooded, and trout numbers couldn’t keep up. Then, as lake conditions stabilised but the trout numbers continued to expand, trout size dropped dramatically. Today, the Inland Fisheries Service allows large bag limits on these three waters. It is recognised there is little danger of over-exploitation of the vast trout stocks by anglers, and perhaps even a chance that angler harvest could increase the average size of the fish.

Old records reflect the size of Great Lake fish back in the early days.

In 1988, Tasmania held its first World Fly Fishing Championships. During the week before the competition, it was my honour to be selected to host Team USA, who were competing for the first time. One of my duties was to introduce them to the waters they were about to fish. Their captain was a dry-witted but good fun guy called Bob Johns. I took Bob and a couple of other team members down to Bronte Lagoon to show them some tailing trout in the late afternoon light. I sent them off down some grassy shore and commented if they caught a couple, I’d cook them up for breakfast. Bob looked at me in shock and horror and said he’d never killed a wild brown trout in his life, and certainly wouldn’t begin doing it today!

Later, back at my shack and over a glass or two of something American around the log fire, we discussed the matter well into the night. When I explained how wonderfully prolific some Tasmanian wild trout fisheries were, he did agree with me – or should I say sort of agreed with me: deep down, I knew he would never change his mind. I doubted he would ever kill a wild trout; he considered them way too precious.

Anyway, as you can tell, I’m happy to take a fish from waters that can afford it. But I also have a strong view about fish and game. If one is going to kill something wild, it should be treasured and never wasted. I can’t believe how many of Nature’s creatures are treated with disdain after death. All fish should be killed swiftly and cleanly, both out of respect, and to save adrenalin coursing through its veins and thereby downgrading the eating qualities. The Japanese buy their tuna at a market, testing each fish for an adrenalin count before bidding at auction. A large 500 kg tuna can be worth a million dollars…   or less than half that, depending on the manner in which it has been killed. Over my life with rod and gun, I’ve seen some horrible treatment by both anglers and shooters, leaving fish flopping around to die on the bank or in a fish box. I’ve seen some terrible things done to ducks and quail that have not been despatched properly.

A farmer who kills a sheep in the paddock on farm and then hangs his lamb in a chilled room for the meat to set for a time, will serve roast lamb that tastes like no other. Very different to the lambs that are transported to an abattoir in a lorry, held up in a yard for hours or even days, killed with a bolt and then dressed for sale in a supermarket. Very different indeed.

To me, being a true sportsman comes with the responsibility of looking after and caring for the game killed. Indeed, those of us who harvest from the wild are very fortunate. Compared to fish and crustaceans increasingly farmed intensively with additives, wild-caught fish are at another level.

Care and preparation ensures fish kept for the table are not wasted.

Once quickly despatched, fish should be chilled immediately, particularly on a warm day. A trout’s flesh will go soft very quickly. Even keeping them shouldered in a hessian bag will destroy the quality of the capture in an hour or so on a warm day. The trout caught on my boat go straight into slightly damp but not wet hessian with ice packs. Then they are hung to stiffen before filleting. In cold weather, hanging them overnight in a fish safe is perfect. A stiffened fish from the fish safe is also much easier to fillet.

I like to fillet larger fish but a smaller ‘breakfast’ fish, scaled, and after hanging overnight in the cold air, perhaps dusted with flour, white pepper and salt, then into a fry pan as a whole fish with butter and peanut oil, is hard to beat.

I like to cold smoke or even gravlax my larger trout and part two will delve into the how, what and why.

In the meantime if this small treatise should make even a single reader a little more aware of the true food opportunity of a fish or two taken sustainably, I shall be pleased I’ve written it.

How To Gut and Clean a Trout from FlyStream on Vimeo.