After all the shopping, planning, driving, rigging, tying, casting, hooking and landing, you’ve finally brought that trout to shore.
That’s Step 1.
Whether the fish will live to fight again or is destined for the dinner table, how you manage Step 2 will make all the difference. Anglers preparing for the statewide opening of trout season April 15 might put some forethought into how they intend to handle their fish.
To various degrees, brook, brown and rainbow trout are delicate fish. Stocked trout are more environmentally tolerant than their wild cousins, but all are susceptible to siltation, pollution, water temperature and a shortage of oxygenated water.
Catch and release trout anglers have seconds — literally — to remove the hook, pose and snap that selfie before getting the fish safely back in the water. Grasp big fish firmly above the tail and behind the pectoral fins, and keep fingers away from the fragile gills. Sometimes legal stocked trout can be shaken off the hook at the angler’s side — for the sake of conservation, let’s call it a catch — or a quick twist of the forceps can usually free a hook. Contact with a dry hand removes some of a fish’s protective slime. If you’re releasing trout, wear a fishing glove or at least wet your hand before touching it.
As delicate as trout can be, their flesh is even more fragile and can respond badly to poor handling. You know those anglers who walk around all day showing off with their catch dangling from stringers? If they invite you to dinner, say you have other plans.
“The whole key is to keep it cold on ice,” said Jim Wholey, president of Robert Wholey & Company fish market in the Strip District. “Bacteria starts growing at 40 degrees and (the rate of growth) multiplies as the temperature increases.”
Bacterial growth, however, is less of a concern during an average day of fishing than the threat of spoilage. As with other meats and vegetables, it’s the fat, not the fleshy bits, that is first to go bad. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists the fat content of the edible portion of rainbow trout at 11.4 percent, significantly higher than in lean fish like cod. Unchilled and dragged around for hours on a warm spring day, fat stores under the skin undergo a chemical decomposition. Mildly rancid fish probably won’t make you sick, but it smells bad and will spoil that trout dinner.
It’s easy for boaters and shore anglers to keep a cooler of ice nearby, but it’s difficult to impossible for anglers who prefer more mobile forms of fishing.
William Davis, a Wholey’s kitchen worker who also runs a South Florida kayak-fishing guide service, keeps his catch alive for as long as possible. An old school rope or steel stringer works as well as a floating mesh basket or high-density foam cell fish bag.
“Keep them in the water so they stay cool and keep breathing,” he said. “The meat isn’t going bad while the fish are still alive.”
Whether a trout suffocates out of water, is gutted live or quickly killed with a knife through the base of the spinal cord does not impact the flavor of the flesh, Davis said, but it should be field dressed as soon as possible. Avoid puncturing the bile sac and other parts of the entrails while separating the guts and the gills from the meat. With a knife, lightly score and open the “blood line” directly under the spine and use a fingernail to scrape out black goo.
Some anglers bleed larger fish by slashing the gills and hanging them upside down. It’s not necessary for most stocked trout. Scaley fish can be descaled, but it’s hard to strip off trout skin — easier to remove it after it’s cooked. And while some diners may gag at the sight of a fish head, it’s better to cut it off, if desired, while prepping for cooking.
If rigor mortis has stiffened the trout or its eyes are cloudy, you’ve waited too long to clean it. It won’t make your dinner guests sick, but the raw flesh has passed its prime.
Wash, pat dry and wrap the trout individually in plastic wrap or drop in a gallon-size sealable plastic bag and roll it tight. Food and Drug suggests that fish stored at the recommended refrigerator temperature of 40 degrees will stay good for about a week. At the typical freezer temperature of zero degrees fish can remain safe indefinitely, but the quality decreases with time. If well prepared, frozen trout stays in top condition for five months and is generally suitable for eating for 18 months.
Trout stocked by the state Fish and Boat Commission are subject to the blanket one-meal-per-week consumption advisory that applies to all sportfish caught by recreational anglers throughout Pennsylvania. Servings of rainbow, steelhead and brown trout caught in the open waters of Lake Erie or pulled from Presque Isle Bay should be eaten no more often than once a month.
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