Recently I found a photo of Gus Gauch, the old Swiss farmer who taught me, among other things, how to fish trout, tie flies and make really good macaroni and cheese. The odd thing about the photo is that Gus looks like a young man. He is standing next to his wife with a big smile on his face, and he looks a lot younger than I do today.
And of course he is, because Gus died before he was sixty. He cared for his parents at home and married only after they had died. I can still see my sixtieth birthday, but only by looking in the rearview mirror.
Besides showing me how to catch trout, Gus taught me how to fry them. The first lesson took place on a June day along the Namekagon river a short distance upstream from the Turk’s Inn north of Hayward where several springs drained from the bank.
The cold spring water made this a good place for trout once the water temperature began rising in the summer. Gus’s contribution made the spot popular with thirsty fishermen too, because he had hung a pint jar on a branch over one of the larger springs. We (Gus mostly) had had a good morning of trout fishing when we stopped at a dry clearing next to the springs.
We leaned our rods against a tree and Gus took off the small backpack he was wearing that day. From it he took a frying pan, a turner and a jelly jar of bacon grease. It was my job to fetch birch bark and dry firewood while he cleaned the trout.
Gus had cooked there before. There were two rows of stones for the fire arranged so he could set the pan over the fire. We shared a jar of spring water and watched trout rising while the wood burned down to coals. As we waited on the fire, he got out little salt and pepper shakers, two tin plates, a pair of forks, some sliced bread and a red bandanna for a tablecloth from the pack
Then Gus talked me through his recipe for frying trout. “First, Chuck, put plenty of bacon grease in the pan and let it get hot. Make sure the trout are good and clean and sprinkle them inside with salt and pepper. Fry them a few minutes on one side, not too long, then turn ‘em over and fry them until they’re done. You can tell by sticking a fork in along the back fin to see if the meat comes off the bone.”
In a few minutes we were eating four of the best trout I have ever tasted, one of which I had caught that morning. These were small native brown trout, 9 or 10 inches long, with firm gold flesh. The DNR had planted trout in the river but they were marked, so we could release those to grow up or fall victim to less fastidious fishermen.
Today I fish mostly for brook trout, partly because the Wild Rivers management folks and DNR experts have virtually destroyed the fishery on the section of the Namekagon that I treasured. Then too, with the crowds of canoeists and tubers in summer it is far less fun for me. I enjoy the solitude of brook trout streams where I can occasionally catch a trout so beautiful that I feel compelled to say as a friend did once, “Now I know what heaven looks like.”
Don’t think of trying this recipe unless you or someone you trust will catch the trout, treat them properly and have them ready for cooking within a few hours after the fish left the water. Avoid stocked trout. I think that the best brook trout for frying are nine to eleven inches long with red-gold flesh. My mother disagreed: She liked them smaller, but that may have been because she remembered those little fish that I once brought home so proudly.
This recipe is fancier than Gus’s but I’m sure that he would say it’s okay.
Enough trout to feed whoever will be sharing the feast.
4 to 5 T butter or more if you are cooking for a crowd
Salt and pepper
1/2 tsp. lemon juice for each 2 trout
The trout should have been cleaned immediately after being caught. Leave the heads and fins on the fish. Rinse the fish and dry them with paper towels. Salt and pepper the body cavities lightly.
Melt the butter in a large skillet and heat until the butter starts to brown. Wash and chop some fresh parsley. Place the trout side by side in the pan but do not crowd them. Fry them rapidly three to four minutes on one side, turn them over and fry another two to three minutes.
Sprinkle about a half teaspoon of chopped parsley on each trout and squeeze the lemon juice over the fish. Cover and cook for another minute. Check for doneness with a fork. The meat should not be soft but should come away from the backbone at the thickest part of the fish. If necessary, cover and cook another minute or two. Serve immediately.
NOTE: You can replace the lemon juice with an equal amount of a good dry or semi-dry white wine such as a chardonnay or Riesling. Brook trout should be served with lightly seasoned side dishes or simply with good bread and butter and a glass or two of wine.