Clean Your Catch

A guide to gutting your fish

The first thing to learn when setting out to harvest any wild food is how to keep it in good condition until you eat. Fresh is best, so keep your catch cool and out of the sun until you are ready to clean it. Before cutting into the fish, knock it on the head to render it unconscious. 

Hold the trout around its middle with the underbelly facing toward you. Insert a sharp knife into the anal orifice and, moving the knife point upward, slit the trout to the gill cavity. On the the bottom jaw of the trout there is a horseshoe-shaped “tab.” Slide the knife under the tab to loosen it. Put your thumb under the tab and push it into the gill cavity. Grip the head with your other hand and remove the gill cavity along with the entrails in one downward motion. With the entrails gone, the head, skin, and blood vein must still be removed. With your knife, gently pierce the thin membrane covering the blood vein and using your thumb scrape it away from the flesh. 

At this point the trout is ready to cook; however, you can also skin a fresh trout easily. Grab the head and bend it backward to break the backbone, leaving the skin intact. Grip the bottom half of the trout and pull the head and skin downward, stripping the skin inside out. The trout is now ready for baking, frying, broiling, or smoking. If you are not ready to cook it, moisten some ferns or grass with cold water and pack the fish in them to keep it cool. A little butter, lemon, and a frying pan are all you need to turn your catch into a fantastic meal, but here are two suggestions for other ways to cook a trout in the woods. Both of these techniques require that you leave the skin on the fish.

Plank Trout
Attach a trout, skin side down, to a smooth pine, fir, oak, or mesquite board. Drive one nail just behind the gill and another at the base of the tail. Be careful to avoid nailing into the flesh, as it will produce poor flavor. Prop the plank close to a fire. While it cooks, rub it with a piece of hot salt pork to keep it moist. Stick the fish with a fork; if it slides in and out easily with no flesh clinging to it, the fish is ready to eat.

Clay-Baked Trout
Smear the fish with moist clay from a stream side pool. Let the clay dry and harden until it is no longer sticky to the touch, then pack on another thick layer of clay. Lay the fish “brick” along the edge of an open fire. When the fire burns down, place the brick among the coals. When the coals die out, the fish is done. (The hot clay will keep the fish warm for some time.) Whack the brick with a hatchet to open it. It will crack neatly in half, with a lengthwise portion of moist trout in each side. The scales stick to the brick and the exposed spine comes away cleanly.

 Steve Kuntz is a chef with Montana Fish Company.