How to Eat a Fish

First, think how much you want it in your belly.

Jul 1, 2000
Outside Magazine


I HOLD FEW MORAL reservations about eating a trout. Not so many years ago, after a long and happy relationship with the spinning reel, I finally buckled to cultural pressure and decided I could no longer avoid the gentleman's romance of fly-fishing. I had owned the gear for a decade but never used it, daunted, I suppose, by the higher art of flies and knots but also unattracted by the attendant sensibilities of the fly fisherman, which seemed devoted to a certain preciousness, or pretension of enlightenment and virtue.

I come to the river rod in hand, neither saint nor renegade. Catching trout on a fly is indeed a lovely game for me. But eating one or two for dinner is something else again, something more vital, more important. So little remains of the wild, and what isn't there we ate, all of us—vegetarians don't escape this indictment. In the developed world, our food is an abstraction, as is the death that created it, the drama of blood that so connects us, with vivid intimacy, to the chain of life. I wish I could tell you that once you take the responsibility to kill to eat, you stop killing for the fuck of it, you stop killing out of greed or pleasure or anger, but there is that possibility. Perhaps one day we'll eat ourselves right off this planet. Probably we will. And on that day I would eat the last fish on earth, without guilt or too much sentimentality. Somebody, something, has to.

In the meantime I will continue to fish the streams above my one-room cabin in New Mexico, and I teach my 12-year-old daughter to fish them too. Last summer I took her to a lake in the high country, where to my amazement she caught her first rainbow on her first cast and then proceeded to earn my undying respect by fishing three hours more, in unstudied concentration, without a hit, without a complaint. I had wanted her to learn that to be there in the mountains, on the clear icy water, should be enough, and it was.

Of the four rainbows I caught, I kept one, and together with hers we had our next day's breakfast. In the morning I showed her how to pan-fry the perfect trout, slicing open the fish from throat to anal vent, removing the guts and gills, cleaning and washing the cavity of blood and tissue, then dusting the fish with flour. When she asked me why I didn't cut off their heads, I told her the heads were too beautiful to remove unless the fish was too big for the pan, and it seemed undignified to mutilate the fish unnecessarily. I bridged the rocks of our campfire with an iron skillet, added a quarter-inch of olive oil, threw in chopped garlic until the garlic was golden, and then removed it. Salt, pepper, garlic, olive oil—that's it, if you want to preserve the exquisite delicacy of the rainbow's taste. When the oil was hot enough to sizzle, I placed the fish in the skillet and fried them until each side was crisp and browned.

Sitting in the lakeside grass, alone in the world, we ate off tin plates, licking our fingers, and gazed up at the snow-mottled peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. "Did you like it?'' I asked my fish-strong daughter.

"Loved it.''

"Want to hear some platitudes?''

"Not really.''

So listen, kid: Never keep more fish than you can eat at one meal, never eat more than you want, never want more than you need, never need more than is reasonable, never be too reasonable about what you love, never love anything so much you love it to death, never destroy what can't be replaced, never think everything can be replaced.

"Do you have any Woolly Buggers?'' she asked, and was the first to pick up a rod.

Gear | Western Rivers

The Rod: Sage four-piece XP, five-weight ($540; 800-533-3004). A lightweight, fast-action rod with enough power to throw giant western stoneflies without all that double-hauling. Even a light backcast generates enough line speed to cast spinners into a Ketchum headwind, and the trimmings—a nickel silver reel seat, imbuya wood insert, and gold-colored guide wraps—will make even bamboo-rod owners drool. 

The Reel: Sage 3200 ($295; 800-533-3004). The 3.1-ounce 3200 balances well with the bantam-weight XP, yet houses a click drag strong enough to stop runaway lunkers cold. 

The Line: Scientific Anglers Distance Taper ($55; 800-525-6290). Designed for long casts, it cuts through strong headwinds with authority and lays down gently.