Category Archives: trout

Trout Cakes

Family vacation in the Colorado Rockies is officially over and it’s time to settle once more into the daily rhythms of end-of-summer. This means taking the kids to school rather than the trout pond.

[Insert sustained grumbling.]

Back to to the vacation part. Each summer we visit family in a rural Rocky Mountain valley. It’s an outdoor paradise of hiking, mountain biking, mushroom hunting, and above all, fishing. The Rockies boast some of the most hallowed angling waters on the planet. On the drive home, I pointed out old haunts that my children will hopefully experience as they get older: the Green and the Henry’s Fork; the Beaverhead and the Big Hole. We must have crossed the Clark Fork and its tantalizing riffles a couple dozen times on our final leg home on I-90.

Most of our fishing on the nearby rivers and ponds in Colorado involves catch and release. I’ve had friendly arguments with my pal Hank Shaw over the tenets of c-n-r fishing. He calls it “playing with your food” and wants no part. As a fly fisherman, I’ve grown up with catch-and-release fishing and take the side so eloquently agued by David Duncan: in a crowded world besieged with hard resource management decisions, catch and release is a way to preserve a time-honored experience (catching a big fish), and in the process create a future environmental steward (that little kid with the huge brown and a goofy grin).

That said, let’s be real. Fishing is ultimately a blood sport. Even with effective catch-and-release technique, a few fish will die (statistics suggest fewer than 5 percent, but still). And, hey, trout taste good, too! So we always take a few trout from the pond where we fish to keep it real. My boy has been doing this since the age of two, when he refused to release a beautiful rainbow nabbed on his trusty Scooby Doo rod. My daughter is now racking up her own pantheon of memorable lunkers.

The kids kill and clean their own fish. Riley doesn’t even ask for help anymore. He enjoys nothing more than spending a morning at the pond catching trout and then bringing one home for the pan. He wields a sharp fillet knife to open the fish and inspects its stomach to see what the predator has been eating. Then he plops his freshly cleaned trout into a skillet sizzling with melted butter and has lunch finished a few minutes later. As a parent, to watch this process is to see the satisfaction of self-reliance in action.

Lots of grandchildren fish this pond, so we don’t take home stringers loaded with trout. Therefore it’s important to sometimes make a dish that can stretch the main ingredient. One day Riley brought home an average rainbow of about 13 inches and we decided to see how big a meal we could make of it. I suggested Trout Cakes. Most of my family has feasted on my Crab Cakes recipe at one time or another, and this was no different. It’s quick and easy and can be modified to taste. Trout Cakes love a bin of leftover veggies.

1 trout, cleaned
1/2 onion, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 egg
1 dollop mayo
1 dollop mustard
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
lemon juice
olive oil
seasoning, such as Old Bay

1. Brush trout all over with olive oil, place on foil in a roasting pan, and broil until barely cooked through. The meat should separate easily from backbone and skin yet still be very tender and moist. Make sure to fetch out all bones. Set meat aside.

2. Saute diced onion and red pepper in butter. Remove to large bowl. Mix together with the trout meat, mayo, mustard, egg, breadcrumbs, parsley, and a squeeze of lemon. Add seasoning and spice to taste.

3. Form into patties or balls or whatever, and fry in butter until cakes are lightly browned on the outside.

Depending on how much filler you add, you can stretch a single pan-sized trout a  long way. We ended up getting three hockey puck-sized cakes out of the first half of the batch before refrigerating it for later. The second half yielded more than a dozen mini cakes that the adults ate as an appetizer that night with a little sriracha sauce dabbed on top.

It’s hard to deny the educational elements to all this. As with so much in life, truth in fishing is generally found somewhere in the middle. Catch and release has its place, as does catch and kill.

Into the Elwha

Say wha’? The Elwha River Valley, on the north end of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula
Last week I backpacked into the Elwha Basin in Olympic National Park to see the place before it undergoes profound change next year. You see, in 2011 the process of undamming the Elwha will begin in earnest and five species of Pacific salmon will have a chance to re-colonize a river that historically supported large fish runs. Since most of the watershed is within the boundaries the park, the habitat remains in good shape and there are great expectations for filling the river once again with fish.
With this in mind, I decided a trip into the Elwha to see the place before the dams come down would be a good thing, a way to compare the before and after. My timing looked bad, though. Local weather guru Cliff Mass was telling his blog readers that this was a week to stay out of the mountains. A dreaded marine layer was headed our way from the Pacific with a forecast of rain every day for a week. Pigheaded as usual, I hoisted my pack anyway and walked directly into the teeth of the storm. 
The rain held off and that first evening I made it as far as the Lillian River, a major tributary, and a dark, dank foreboding place to make camp. Rodents pestered my tent all night but fortunately, with my food bags hung safely from a bear wire, nothing larger. The next  day I got deeper into the valley, leaving behind the popular destination Elkhorn Camp at the 10-mile mark to penetrate another six miles up-valley to where the Hayes River meets the Elwha. It was around Hayes that I felt civilization’s shackles start to loosen—and here is an important lesson known to serious backpackers: go deep. Your destination may be labeled wilderness or national park, but the essence of the wild doesn’t kick in until you’re suitably removed from the trappings of town. In this case I was 16 miles up a trail and another dozen or so miles inside a national park boundary before the magic of the back-country began to percolate. 
And percolate it did. Beyond Hayes the trees got bigger and the forest took on an enchanted quality. A lush carpet of moss covered everything. Winds whistled down from surrounding peaks carrying with them the sounds of glaciers creaking and melting. The river brawled through steep canyons. A fallen tree across the trail was as tall as me in its prone position; someone had counted the rings and noted them on the cut: 560 years old, this tree was a sapling here a generation before Columbus set sail for the New World. 
On Day 3 I left base camp to hike another 11 miles into the valley, making for a 22-mile day. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the headwaters but the weather finally caught up to me. It rained all day and the mountains remained mostly hidden, socked in with fog. I had to settle for close-in views of the Elwha Basin and a look at a tumbling, roaring river that gouged out its banks and stacked enormous logjams of old-growth Douglas-fir like cordwood. In this way the river looked nearly perfect on the surface. But I knew that deep within those dark blue pools behind the logjams—ideal shelter for salmon fry—the currents were empty of anadromous fish. For now.

At Happy Hollow, the last shelter on the trail before it becomes a climbing route, I ran into three trekkers who had just come down from the Bailey Traverse, a famous bushwhack through a remote range in the Olympics that has never seen a designated trail. The trekkers had a fire going to dry their gear and seemed both exhilarated from their multi-day expedition and glad to be found. They had spent a full day lost in the hills and told me they were two days behind schedule and worried that a search party might be sent after them. I agreed to notify a ranger of their whereabouts on my way out.

The mushrooms were just starting to pop and they seemed to grow right in front of my eyes, the shiny red caps of Russulas emerging where there had been only moss just a few hours earlier, and hedgehogs clustering in the darkest patches of forest. I made dinner with a medley of wild mushrooms, including chanterelles, lobsters, and hedgehogs. I also caught rainbow trout and released them back into the river where they will seed the future stocks of steelhead that will hopefully reclaim the river once the dams are gone.
Trips like this got me foraging in the first place and when I reemerged on Day 5 to find my car in the parking lot, the spell of the wild was still on me. I drove back to Seattle in a daze, blissfully unaware of the traffic, neon signs, and hurly-burly of the city, at least for a little while.

First Brookie on the Fly

Okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly his first. Last year Riley hooked and caught a brookie on the fly with help from his dad. But this year the kid decided nine years old was about the right age to pick up a fly rod unaided, and who am I to argue? It will be sad to finally say goodbye to the Scooby-Do rod—we’ve had some good times with that stalwart member of our family angling arsenal. Riley caught trout, bass, steelhead, and even salmon off the beach with the Scooby-Do rod but he’s ready for what he calls a big boy rod.
We practiced on the pond in Colorado while visiting his grandparents. Seeing him throw a 9-foot 5-weight rod is a little comical—he’s dwarfed by the thing—but really no matter how big or heavy the rod, it’s all a matter of timing, and Riley seems to have a pretty good understanding already of what it takes to make a good cast, even in the wind. The first fish surprised us both and after a brief tussle broke the line. We regrouped with another fly and the next fish wasn’t so lucky—it was a big rainbow that Riley released because he wanted to eat a brookie.
The third fish was the hoped-for brookie and now the fight was on. I had the film rolling when—cripes!—my memory card crapped out. Anyway, I managed to catch some of the action and completed the video with a couple stills of his catch, a nice brookie that got pan-fried within the hour.
The next day I took Riley to a stretch of the Yampa River known for its huge rainbows, a tailwater section below Stagecoach Reservoir where tiny flies and fine tippets are the order of the day. Most anglers nymph this stretch, which is to say they fish wet flies subsurface under strike indicators. I’ll nymph if I have to but dry-fly fishing—the excitement of a slashing strike at the surface—is my preference and I figured it would be a better introduction to moving water if Riley could watch the progress of his fly and see how mending his line could make a difference along with all the other skills required to successfully fish a dry fly. 
The upshot: more of those dudes hunkered over their #22 RS2s and bobbers ought to try tossing something as unassuming as a #14 parachute adams—it worked for Riley!
Ed. note: I value your comments and will respond to this and previous posts as soon as I return from a week off the grid in the Rogue River Canyon. 

No Ordinary Fish

Rainbow trout first captured my imagination in sixth grade when I filled an aquarium at school with a few dozen fingerlings. Most of them went belly up, but the hardiest survived to become silver streaks of excitement for Middle School boys with their faces pushed up against the glass.

Here in Washington State on the dry, eastern side of the Cascade Mountains, we have a species of trout variously called redside or redband. In fact it is a subspecies of rainbow adapted to live in the desert canyon country of the Pacific Northwest, a harsh environment of fluctuating river flows and oscillating weather extremes. The common names derive from the intense rosy blush coloring the fish’s gill plate and flanks. These rainbows, I discovered soon after moving here, flash gorgeous colors and fight like hell.

Most of my fishing for redsides has been in the Yakima Canyon, a drainage severely compromised by dams and irrigation which some anglers refer to it as “the ditch.” But that ditch’s trout mesmerized me from the get-go. I had fished for rainbows all over the country, and though these particular fish rarely attained the size of rainbows I had caught up and down the fertile streams of the Rockies, they seemed to me more beautiful and pound-for-pound better fighters than their compatriots elsewhere.

My suspicions about the Yakima’s rainbows were confirmed several years ago after meeting a state fish commissioner around the campfire one night. He told me that contrary to public perception, the Yakima’s rainbows are hardly the mutts most people think they are. Years of stocking for a “put-and-take” fishery ended in the early 80’s with new selective gear rules that culminated with “catch and release” designation in 1990 (those wanting to keep a fish can do so below Roza Dam). Now the fish are strictly wild—that is, self-sustaining. More than that, DNA tests proved that years of stocking hadn’t fundamentally changed the river’s native trout. Apparently the natives didn’t find the stockers attractive or fit for breeding.

“You’re catching ‘bows descended from the same fish that Lewis and Clark caught,” the commissioner told me.

If only this were true for other watersheds.

As Anders Halverson explains in An Entirely Synthetic Fish, his book tracing the remarkable journey of the rainbow trout, from its origins in one of the nation’s first hatchery programs to its subsequent spread around the country and the world, the success of the rainbow has had a greater impact on fish and fishing than anyone could have predicted. Rainbow introductions created fisheries where none previously existed, helped to initiate countless young anglers, and altered ecosystems. With echoes of Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, Halverson shows that not only have we engineered a fish but that the fish has also engineered us.

The story begins with Livingston Stone, a New Hampshire pastor turned aquaculturist. In 1872, with orders from his boss Spencer Fullerton Baird, head of the newly hatched U.S. Fish Commission, Stone went west on the transcontinental railroad to San Francisco, then traveled north to the upper reaches of the Sacramento Basin in the shadow of Mt. Shasta. Here, within an arrow shot of the Wintu Indians, he set up shop on the McCloud River with hopes of propagating chinook salmon. The salmon hatchery didn’t pan out but further upstream he met success with another North Pacific species, the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss).

By 1886 the U.S. Fish Commission had sent rainbow trout to 33 of the 38 states then in the Union as well as England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and Mexico. In time the fish would establish populations in South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Africa. Rainbow trout would become a “global species, both physically and culturally,” remarks Halverson. “The range expansion that corn, sheep, dogs, and humans only achieved over thousands of years, rainbow trout have accomplished in little more than a century.” The author goes on to examine the concurrent rise of recreational fishing, suggesting that such a rise might not have been possible without the adaptability of rainbow trout, for the sheer numbers of modern anglers require a hardy fish that can be produced—or reproduce on its own—in quantity. Hence the proliferation of hatcheries around the world, for good or ill, and the current debate over wild fish versus man-made fish.

The rainbow’s ascension occurred during a time when the control of nature seemed not only possible but preferable. Massive dam projects changed the face of the American West in particular, and where warm, muddy rivers once flowed there were now dam-controlled water courses with clear, cold water—prime trout habitat. Halverson details one of the more unseemly chain of events: the poisoning of the Green River (tributary to the Colorado) and its native “rough fish” to make way for sport fish like the rainbow. The poisoned fish now reside on the Endangered Species list.

As the Green River episode illustrates, the rainbow’s success has come at considerable cost. Rainbow trout now compete with native fish on nearly every continent. They’re also used as compensation for degraded habitats. Throughout the 20th century it was commonplace to erect a fish hatchery where the assault of pollution, resource extraction, and development made natural fish propagation an impossibility. On the other hand, one wonders how many of today’s river stewards were first lured to the joys of fish and fishing by the leaping rainbow.

Anglers and history buffs alike will tie into a good story with An Entirely Synthetic Fish, a story that is both peculiarly American and also global in its lessons. After all, China is the new frontier for trout fishermen.

Wild Mushroom Stuffed Brook Trout

Fishing is always at the top of the agenda when we visit my parents in Colorado. In years past my boy has demonstrated mastery of the Scooby-Doo rod, so this time out he insisted on a flyrod. I had visions of tangled line, a bird nest leader, and tears, but instead Riley threw a tight loop with his two-handed grip and effortlessly put a black woolly-bugger fly in the strike zone. The result: a beautiful brookie destined for the oven (not the ginormous rainbow in the photo at left, which was released unharmed).

Usually we pan-fry our trout. But with a haul of wild mushrooms gathered on a hike in the Gore Range the previous day, including oyster mushrooms and aspen boletes (known to locals as orange-caps), we decided a stuffed baked trout was the way to go.

A word about aspen boletes (Leccinum insigne): Most books and web sites list this species as edible. Coloradans regularly eat this common variety of porcini. However, the Colorado Mycological Society recommends caution. Every year the Rocky Mountain Poison Center receives complaints of gastro-intestinal distress following the ingestion of orange-caps, with some cases requiring hospitalization. In the Northwest there are similar complaints that derive from the consumption of Leccinum aurantiacum. I’ve talked to a mycologist who believes that a small percentage of the population at large—maybe just a few percent—is allergic to the genus Leccinum in general. Most people seem to eat these mushrooms without difficulty, and indeed, immigrants from mushroom-hunting cultures (e.g., Eastern Europeans) eat them with abandon. As with any new species of edible wild mushroom, it’s recommended that you nibble on just a little bit (cooked of course) to make sure you’re not allergic.

To make this recipe I had to de-bone my first trout, a technique I had never attempted because it’s easier to remove the backbone and ribs after the fish is cooked. But a trout that has been fully de-boned and butterflied before cooking makes an elegant presentation, and a stuffed trout in particular begs for butterflying. I found this helpful YouTube video and then got to work.

For the recipe I used this one, and as you can see, even brazenly lifted the photographic composition. Note that I’ve changed the amounts to suit my tastes (more mushrooms, for instanse, and the addition of parsley) and instead of serving 8, my version is for 2.

2 pan-sized trouts, butterflied
2 pieces bacon
1/4 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup mushrooms, chopped
1 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 heaping tbsp parsley, chopped
1 slice bread, toasted and crumbled
lemon for juice and garnish
salt and pepper to taste

Fry the bacon and remove from pan when crispy. Crumble bacon into a bowl. Saute onion in bacon fat a couple minutes over medium heat, then add mushrooms and cook for another four or five minutes, making sure mushrooms expel their moisture. Add thyme and cook for one more minute. Spoon onion-mushroom mixture into bowl with bacon and add bread crumbs. Mix together. Squeeze lemon juice over butterflied trouts and season with salt and pepper. Spread half the stuffing onto lower half of one trout; repeat with other trout. Fold over each trout like a sandwich and secure with toothpicks. Place on greased foil in a broiling pan and bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

Last time I saw the folks I cooked them Bourbon & Pecan Encrusted Trout. That was tasty, but the Stuffed Trout, we all agreed, was extra special. I’ll be serving this to friends back in Seattle for sure.

Truant Ice Fishing

Who cares about the cold—or school, for that matter—when you can go ice fishing? Hopefully Ms. Moon isn’t reading this or she might not allow Riley to make up his weekly 2nd grade spelling test. Last Friday morning, while his classmates were puzzling over the etymological differences between principal and principle, he was exercising his own devotion to life’s First Principles by dropping a baited hook through a hole in the ice.

Yes, I’m a bad parent.

We kicked off our mid-winter break a couple days early to visit my folks in Colorado. Family friend Bill showed up on Friday with his gas-powered auger, which augured well for the fishing.

Bill is a riverkeeper by profession. Riverkeepers are good folks to know. They tell dirty jokes and know where all the fish are. For the local developers and other greedhead despoilers, they’re a royal pain in the ass. Bill has a pretty good idea of who is polluting what, and he makes them pay.

We’ve had some good fishing together, Bill and I. One time he took me into a scenic stretch of national forest with a pitch-perfect meander of purling creek. A spring flood had turned the creek into a monster a few weeks earlier that wiped out two barrier dams downstream, allowing stocked, non-native fish to escape upstream onto public land. Our mission that day: catch and dispatch as many stocker rainbows up to 18 inches as we could fit in Bill’s ginormous creel. Big dry flies and constant action. On our way out we spooked a herd of elk. Just a magic day in the mountains.

Bill has been talking up the local ice fishing in this part of Colorado for a while now. I haven’t done a lot of ice fishing. In fact, never. We got all the gear together: the auger, shovels, special light-weight ice rods, and mealworms to dangle tantalizingly from our lures—plus firewood and burgers. Bill took a turn with the auger, then I drilled out a few holes. We baited our hooks, took seats on rounds of firewood, and waited, looking down into those dark green holes.

I’m starting to get used to the fact that my eight-year-old son catches more and bigger fish than me. While I nabbed and released a few small brookies, Riley hauled in slab-sided rainbows of 15 and 16 inches, fish that looked as though two and half feet of ice and a general lack of oxygen weren’t having any sort of deleterious effect on their over-wintering plans.

Most of the fish were released unharmed, but in addition to the burgers we grilled up one pan-sized trout en plein air and the 15-incher got strung on a willow switch for lunch the following day. Speaking of our lunch, Bourbon and Pecan-Encrusted Trout, Riley not only got to play hookey last week, but he had his first taste of good ol’ American sourmash. Bad parent.

Here’s some vid action of the day, and the recipe below.

Bourbon & Pecan-Encrusted Trout

1 lb trout fillets
6 oz pecans, chopped
2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup bourbon
1/2 cup coffee
6 tbsp brown sugar

1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Spread chopped pecans on baking tin and roast for 10 minutes, shaking pan every couple minutes.

2. Combine butter, bourbon, coffee, and brown sugar in sauce pan and bring to boil, stirring. Reduce heat to simmer and whisk for 10 minutes until syrupy.

3. Lay trout fillets skin-side down on greased baking pan. Brush on sauce, then cover with pecans. Drizzle more sauce over pecan-encrusted fish to taste.

4. Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes. Remove foil and bake a few minutes longer, careful not to overcook and dry out fillets. Serve with wild rice and a good Chardonnay, or just continue working on that open bottle of bourbon.

Going Rogue

I’m back from the Rogue River Canyon in southwest Oregon, where I helped a friend put his cabin to bed for the winter. This is an annual event, and though the summer steelhead fishing tends to be well past its peak by mid-November, we spend a good part of the day on the river anyway, walking the trails, hunting for river teeth, casting a line, and generally soaking up the spectacular canyon action. Bald eagles soar overhead and otters frolic in the currents. There’s so much to see and do that invariably we wind up walking home in the dark, the “reptilian brain” tuned into every snapping twig (cougar!) and rustling leaf (bear!). Back at the cabin we warm ourselves beside an old woodstove. Meals are whumped up on a propane stove, light cast by kerosene lanterns. It’s a First Principles sort of deal.

This place is deep in my bones. I lived there for the better part of a year in my mid-20s and returned in 2004 for a second tour. Fifteen years ago I caught my first steelhead in one of the river’s hallowed holes and learned how to key out wild mushrooms found in the woods that stretch unbroken for miles around the cabin. It’s safe to say FOTL wouldn’t exist without my experiences in the Rogue.

Fishing for “half-pounders” is one of the local gigs. They’re immature steelhead that run up the Rogue for reasons scientists have yet to fully understand. Too young to spawn, they enter fresh water in the late summer and loiter all winter, eating just enough to stay alive, then drop back down to the salt to finish maturing before their actual spawning run the next year. It’s a puzzling phenomenon that occurs in only a handful of watersheds along the Oregon-California border, most famously in the Klamath and Rogue rivers. Fly-fishermen in particular admire the half-pounders, which generally tape out between 12 and 16 inches and lustily take a fly, providing good sport when the big fish aren’t ready to play.

I don’t eat a lot of half-pounders because I’d rather catch them as bigger adults of several pounds. But a trip to the Rogue wouldn’t be the same without a hatchery fish for breakfast one morning. Like the adults, their flesh is pink from eating shrimp and other saltwater crustaceans. The taste is more subtle than salmon—imagine fresh sautéed rainbow trout with a hint of the sea to it, an essence of shrimp or crab that expands the flavor without losing that fine, nutty troutness. It’s a noble taste that should be enjoyed with good friends.

In my next post I’ll be discussing a type of mushroom—common in the Rogue River Canyon—that might kill you if your identification isn’t up to snuff.

A Nod to the Natives

It’s Mrs. Finspot‘s birthday today and I figure she’d like to see—relive, really—these shots of her boy catching yet another fibby, as his sister would say. The kid is automatic. Seven years of spending every available moment in the woods have taught him well.

I’ve already talked up the virtues of the brook trout. Next in line is the cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki), several sub-species of which are native to the western U.S. and taken together are known for their rather trusting habits. Cutthroats don’t spook quite as easily as other types of trout, and there isn’t a flashy lure or fly that can’t elicit a vigorous hello from them, not unlike being jumped by a slobbering St. Bernard. Cutthroats, it sometimes seems, simply beg to be caught.

Which is why we give them the thumb’s-up for the family backpacking trip to a subalpine lake. The lake in question was more like a high country tarn, with a perimeter of dense undergrowth forming a protective barrier against the lesser angling lights. But faced with two seven-year-olds wielding Scooby Doo rods, the cutties didn’t stand a chance.

All Hail the Lunch Brookie

If there was a fish designed…oops, bad word choice…that evolved just for kids to catch, it’s the brook trout. A member of Salmonidae, or salmon family, the brookie isn’t really a trout; this native of the Eastern U.S. is a char and is distinguished from a trout by its dark coloring and lighter-colored spots (trout, on the other hand, have darker spots on light bodies, among other things).

More important for our purposes, brookies are admired by anglers (and sometimes smack-talked) for their gullibility. Their willingness to take a fly or lure in almost any situation makes them ideal for the family camping trip. And if that’s not enough, most anglers would agree the brookie, with its naturally pink-hued flesh, is the tastiest of our “trout.”

On this occasion the brookie in question was a particularly welcome sight after Riley lost his favorite lure to a huge rainbow the evening before, in an oft-revisited turn of events in which it was roundly concluded by family consensus (with only a single abstention) that FOTL was ultimately at fault for not properly setting the drag on the venerable Scooby-Doo rod and then offering unsolicited advice to horse the hog right up on the dock. FOTL will refrain from comment.

The next morning, operating under the theory that our lure-stealing fish had retreated to the opposite shore to sulk, we tried the far end of the pond, a mosquito-infested corner with tall reeds known as the “Back Bay.” First cast—fish on!

No, it wasn’t the trophy with a gleaming lure dangling from its lip, but a fine lunch this brookie, taping out at 13 inches, did make.

Warpo and the Hatch

Hardcore flyfishers know about a bug that emerges briefly in late spring, usually when brawling western rivers are running full tilt with runoff. This three-inch bug hatches in prodigious numbers, swarms of them crawling over bankside vegetation, falling in the water, flying hither and thither in their drunken helicopter pilot way—driving both the fish and those who stalk the fish crazy with a quivering, unhinged desire. This bug is called the salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica); it’s a giant stonefly with a salmon-colored underside, and it’s a scrumptious meal for a trout.

Salmonfly hatches come off on some pretty good rivers: Rock Creek in Montana, the Deschutes in Oregon, and elsewhere. Problem is, oftentimes the rivers are too blown out to fish when the hatch is on. Anglers with time or money (or usually both) might spend years trying to catch a salmonfly hatch at its peak. When conditions are just right—river in fishable condition, flies in big numbers, fish looking up—you need to drop everything and get yer ass on the water. The hatch might be over a day later—moved upriver to private waters, or just gone, poof!

When my friend Warpo and I planned our excursion into Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison months ago, we weren’t thinking about the salmonfly hatch. Because of tricky scheduling, we would be going in early July, a couple weeks after the hatch in normal years. But this hasn’t been a normal year, and lingering snowpack in the Rockies has delayed all sorts of signs of the season, including wildflower blooms, bird nesting, and…The Hatch.

The night before leaving for the canyon, we watched a documentary to prime the pump. Twice. The boys over at Felt Soul Media put together a 17-minute award-winning film that captures the beauty of the rugged canyon and the madness of the angling action during the salmonfly emergence. (You can watch it on their web site.) It didn’t make them many friends in some quarters, notably among the locals who were keeping this fishery close to the vest for years. But as with so many priceless natural resources, if folks don’t know, it might just be trashed…by the developers, miners, timber barons, water hogs, and other exploiters. In this case, the threat is from Front Range water users like Denver, always on the lookout for more agua to sprinkle on Kentucky Bluegrass yards in desert suburbia. (It should also be noted that Felt Soul is doing yeoman’s work to expose the greed and fraud of the proposed Pebble Mine in the headwaters of Alaska’s most cherished fishery, Bristol Bay, with their latest film, “Red Gold.”)

The skyrocketing popularity of fly-fishing in the last 20 years and the concurrent pressure on fisheries has resulted in an increasingly technical (some might say fussy) approach to the sport, with ever tinier flies and leaders and warier fish. The salmonfly hatch, on the other hand, is a refreshing trip in the Wayback Machine: big flies, big fish, big scenery. The only indicators of the 21st century are the hordes of absurdly geared-out anglers.

While I’m at it, taking a few shots at modern flyfishing, let me say a few words about the modern “angler” who would never deign to kill a fish. Weak sauce. That’s all I’ll say. If you’re willing to hook fish after fish in the mouth and play them till near exhaustion, you should have the nuts to give at least one a rock shampoo—where legal, of course, and within the limits of a practical conservation ethic—and eat it for dinner. All else is hypocrisy. Warpo and I were looking forward to a trout dinner in the backcountry. When we reached the bottom of the canyon, we were hot, sweaty, and hungry. Warpo’s had a tapeworm for as long as I’ve known him. I told him the fishing might take his mind off his stomach, that we would be eating large that night if successful.

How was the fishin’? Well, friends, let me tell you. The scene did not disappoint. Clouds of salmonflies filled the air. They were everywhere. You couldn’t walk the banks without getting them on you. They crawled up your legs and even into your shorts. Every now and again you’d see some fisherman with a big grin on his face doing a little jig on the rocks, trying to dislodge a few misguided salmonflies from the family jewels. And the fishing was off the hook. The first day we fished 12 hours straight—all on top—without a break. Huge trout crashed our flies with ceaseless abandon.

Toward the end of the day I started thinking about dinner. Whirling disease has taken a toll on the Gunnison’s rainbows, but browns are open to harvest. The rules require a brown to be at least 16 inches, so I whacked this one above. He was big enough to fillet, and despite the limited scope of a Leatherman knife, the fillets turned out pretty decent. We had a Ziplock ready with a mixture of breadcrumbs, flour, oregano, Old Bay, and a few other spices lifted from the cabinet before dawn. A little olive oil in the pan and these babies were sizzling as darkness enveloped the canyon.

Warpo has rekindled his childhood interest in flyfishing only in recent years. We’ve made a few trips together, but he had yet to catch a really big fish, a true hawg. Last year he lost one during a moment of bad decision-making on the part of his net-man. The lost fish stayed with him, haunting his dreams. After our first day of the hatch, he could point to numbers of large fish caught to ease the pain, but not a bragging-rights monster…

Until a few minutes before our departure the next day, when he perfected his “wall artistry,” hooking this brute against a sheer slab of impassable rock at the full extent of his casting abilities. (For perspective, Warpo is a tall fella, with knobby, oversized carpenter’s hands.) The big ‘bow was released to eat more salmonflies and tempt the next lucky angler who braves the depths of the Black Canyon.