Trout Fishing: The Opening Day
May 2, 2010 § 2 Comments
I am just getting into a wonderful, magical new pastime – trout fishing! Fishing is something that has always interested me, but somehow I never actually managed to get out there to do it until this past fall, when my new brother-in-law joined our family and, a wonderful hunter and angler and person that he is, became available to me as an educational resource. You see, my husband’s family has never really been into trout fishing, ridge people that they are, and Jacob’s never really done any in the nine years that I’ve known him. Jacob’s sister’s husband, on the contrary, grew up in the valley and learned how to fish from his dad, and is now an avid and a very expertly angler. In addition to his superb sportsmanship, however, he is also a genuinely kind, generous guy, and he gladly took me out this past fall to teach me the ropes, as well as has gifted me his older trout-fishing rod once he upgraded to a new one. Armed with this knowledge and this rod, I headed out to a beautiful trout stream on my friends’ property yesterday morning, for it was the opening day of the trout season.
It might be a little difficult for me to communicate to you the exact magnitude of joy and exhilaration that I experience in the bush. Let me just tell you that I am so profoundly affected by it, that the first time I was exposed to true countryside at the age of 20, I immediately decided that I was made to spend my life in the country, and this decision was the first step in bringing me to the beautiful land of milk and maple syrup that is Wisconsin – a Promised Land indeed. Living in the country is the number one condition for my sanity, happiness, and fulfillment.
Since I had children, however, it’s become more difficult to get out, and I found that I had to actively create situations of childless freedom that offer a much-needed escape deeper into the wild. To that end, hunting and fishing offered both the perfect reason and the perfect excuse. And here’s something I learned – if you are a woman, and if you want to get into those sports, the men around you will gladly offer their support, expertise, and mentorship. And their equipment, too – all the hunting and fishing that I’ve ever done has been with guns and rods gifted, loaned, or otherwise handed down to me by good men in my life – my husband, my father- and brothers-in-law, and my guy friends. Without all of this support, as well as that of my husband and mother-in-law, who provide babysitting for these much-needed getaways, this wouldn’t be possible. And plus, I get to “talk shop” with the guys – it’s like I am speaking their language all of a sudden. I absolutely love this spirit of camaraderie and a special connection I now share with other sportsmen.
While I am yet to catch any fish (this was my second time out trout fishing), and while I am still at the stage of developing a working relationship with my fishing rod, I had an absolutely amazing morning out alone in the field. (I am not 100% sure that the term “in the field” applies to fishing like it does to hunting). You see, I am also very, very passionate about birdwatching and especially bird song identification, and this combines perfectly with the early part of the trout fishing season, which starts right around the time when the spring migration is in full swing. While I don’t use the binoculars while fishing, I derive an enormous pleasure from listening deeply into the bird sounds (and other sounds) around me and recognizing most of them. Whenever I hear a new song, I immediately know it’s something different, and I can go home and look that up later. This morning gave me an especially rich experience, in part because my house is relatively far from any unbroken woods of any decent size, which means that I get more of the open country birds, but not so many forest birds.
Walking up the stream, I listen intently to what I hear around me. There goes the loud call of a pileated woodpecker – the sound that in my mind is tied closely to deer hunting; a rose-breasted grosbeak with a robin-like but more melodious, fluid song, several yellow warblers can be heard all over with their high, sharp “sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet,” and so are the ever-present song sparrows, which, personally, I absolutely love (I love those common, loud, assertive populist birds more than I care for the rare, exotic migrant warblers that everyone’s crazy about). There are also countless robins and an occasional cardinal, a distant titmouse, and a bluebird just a few yards away. A bald eagle passes overhead – year after year they nest on my friend’s land, and turkey vultures are circling high above, catching the thermals.
To me, the experience of the outdoors is always very tactile (and how could it not be!), but what’s new about fishing is that it gives me a reason to spend time in the world at the bottom – a ridgetop dweller through and through, I prefer to hunt deer off of high points (rocky outcroppings along the hillsides) or from the edges of the ridgetop fields, feeling drastically limited in my field of view and even claustrophobic deep in the valley bottoms. But this all changes with fishing, which is a valley-bottom-only activity, since obviously there’s no water on the hilltops. What I am saying is that the valley world presents a different ecosystem, with different plants and animals I am not as used to encountering at the top, making that whole tactile aspect so different and fresh. There’s that particular smell of wet dirt and grass, and the sound of the running water that I am not used to hearing. The handsome, bright blue-green kingfisher dashes into the water now and then, catching fish. The peppery, assertive whiff of wild mint goes right to my head, giving me that happy, floaty feeling of joy that only nature can give.
Fishing in itself, too, fascinates me deeply. If you’ve never taken prey, I can tell you that it is an absolutely primal, raw, adrenalin-filled experience, exhilarating as it is grounding, requiring a degree of focus and stealth at all times. With trout, too, it’s different than with squirrels and deer because, for a change, it’s a predator on predator hunt, and the whole thing with having to present them with something they are likely to attack puts an entirely different spin on things. A deer hunter, for instance, is by definition an ambush predator, targeting a grazing herbivore, and, as such, his primary trick involves hiding himself effectively from his quarry, to which end he needs to remain very quiet and immobile for hours until you literally begin feeling one with the natural world around you. With trout fishing, on the other hand, you are in a constant activity, always casting and reeling in, trying to make the little lure appear as food to the game fish you are trying to catch while walking continuously upstream. So very different.
It probably doesn’t need a separate mention that I am wild and crazy about eating fish – indeed one of my favorite meats, and freshly-caught fish gives you the kind of profound, mind-bogging freshness most Americans never experience. I first experienced this freshness when we caught a couple of small fish – a sunfish and a bass, in fact, up on a lake in the Upper Peninsula where my family owns a couple of summer cottages. While everyone else ate the frozen salmon that had to come from miles and miles away, Jacob and I feasted on the incredibly fresh fish that we’d just caught and cleaned. Saying that this freshness was “something else” would be a gross understatement. It was something else indeed. The second time I experienced this was that one time my brother-in-law took me trout fishing for the first time, and shared his catch with me. That night I brought home the unbelievably pink, firm brook trout – the likeness of which I’ve never seen or had before, what with Jacob not really being into fishing.
I drenched it in flour and sauteed it simply in butter – you need to saute your trout slowly on low, so that you achieve the golden outside crust and the perfect flaky, moist interior at the same time – about 10 minutes per side – while from time to time moving it carefully in the pan with a fork and a spoon to prevent sticking. I learned this trick from my L.L.Bean cookbook. It was the most amazing thing. I ate every bit of the flavorful skin too, and I turned the eggs we found inside the female into that delicacy that is caviar by separating the eggs from the membrane that holds them, salting them lightly, and thus bringing them in the fridge for a couple of days. Clear-orange, salty, and wonderful, the eggs pop in your mouth. It’s a wonderful sensation.
I also really think that eating bone-in-fish is just so much of a fuller experience than having one of those decidedly bland, boneless, skinless fillets that the Americans seem to want. All the incredibly delicious fish I had at home – pan-fried carp, sturgeon, and the like – was always cooked bone-in. To me, separating the meat from the skin and the bone prior to cooking fish is alien and strange.
Which is not all that surprising. The Americans are so used to fragmentation – the fragmentation of our food items, the fragmentation of our labor force, the fragmentation of families even, that people forget what the original was or should be like, so much so that things in their original form are often undesired. Kind of like when people turn their nose at the organic produce because, imagine that, there might be bugs on it. But not me. Me, I’m going to approach each animal I raise or harvest as a whole and cook my jams with a few occasional bugs.