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Backpacking fare is often limited to energy bars and freeze-dried meals, but it doesn’t have to be. In cold-water lakes and streams, stretching from the Adirondacks in New York to the High Sierra in California, you’ll find trout. And for more than a few reasons, these fish are an ideal food source when you’re out in the wild.
Whether you’re backpacking or camping, you burn a lot of calories, requiring a meal that’s high in fat and protein. A 3-ounce serving of wild trout supplies 130 calories, nearly 20 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, and a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids. With nutrition like that, fresh trout will give any energy bar or freeze-dried meal a run for its money.
In a world where we’re increasingly removed from the source of our food, catching and eating a fresh fish is one of the easiest ways to experience the entire process of transforming a living animal into a finished dish. You catch it, you kill it, you clean it, you cook it, and you eat it—every step is YOURS to own. It’s a rich experience, and you’ll learn something about yourself and the way you perceive food. If you’re new to this sort of thing, a fish is a good place to start because it’s far easier to manage—in terms of logistics, know how, and gore—than other wild game like deer or elk.
The first secret to a tasty fish is freshness, and when a fish goes straight from the lake into the fire, it doesn’t get any fresher. The cold alpine water and variety of feed in a wild trout’s diet produces a flavor-rich fillet with firm texture.
Trout have been showing up on plates in upscale farm-to-table restaurants in increasing number. Trend or not, trout are hot stuff right now. A well-executed trout meal set in the ambiance of wilderness is a sure fire way to impress your companions, and your social followers.
Make the trek to a high-alpine lake. To help carry our gear we enlisted the help of a small herd of pack goats, allowing us to bring certain luxuries the lightweight backpacker would forgo like the bacon, Dutch oven, and beers. Luxuries aside, there is nothing that would prevent even the most Spartan backpacker from feasting on a fresh trout in the wild.
Go catch your fish. In addition to your rod, reel, and fly, make sure you have a legal fishing license and observe all catch limits and regulations for the area you’re fishing. We quickly caught half a dozen beautiful brook trout, all between 6-8 inches in length.
Clean the fish. I find the best way to cull the fish prior to cleaning is a swift, well-directed strike to the back of the head with a stone. With a knife, open the fish along the belly from the anus to the gills. Pull out the guts and then run the back of your thumb along the bloodline on the spine, scraping it clean. Then rinse with cold lake water.
Build a fire. The trick to cooking with an open fire is having a good bed of hot coals, and this can take a little while to develop. A good idea is to have your buddy build and tend to the fire while you’re down at the lake catching the fish. Whatever you do, just don’t leave the fire unattended.
Prepare the fish. To start, line a fish basket with foil. The fish basket is not critical but it makes it really easy to turn the fish over in the fire. Put a slice of lemon inside each trout with a sprig of thyme. Wrap each trout with a slice of bacon—again, this is not required, but it’s tasty. Season with salt and pepper and you’re good to go.
Cook the fish. At this point your fire should have burned down to a nice bed of coals. Rake out a flat spot and place the foil wrapped fish directly on top. Cooking time will vary depending on the type of wood you’re burning and the temperature of the coals, but generally, 10-15 minutes on either side should do the trick. You can always check the fish and cook a little longer if required.
Eat the fish. You’ll want to pair it with a tasty side dish, and for us that was a big scoop of Dutch oven potatoes. While you eat, you’ll enjoy the thought that just minutes earlier, this dinner was swimming around and slurping down bugs in a high-alpine lake.