The fisherman were out at the Mill Pond in West Tisbury this past Sunday in search of trout, giving hope that this winter’s curtain call will soon be ending. The water is getting warmer and the resilient trout that hunkered down for the cold months in our ponds and streams now swim about and feed alongside the newly replenished stocks brought in each spring from hatcheries on the mainland. Trout fishing is peaceful compared to surfcasting for blues or bass and is a perfect introduction for young kids not quite strong enough to fling a lure over breaking waves or not quick enough to avoid unpredictable seas lapping at their feet. Trout fishing means a walk in the woods on moss- covered paths and, on a nice sunny day at the end of March, it provides needed fresh air that energizes those who, much like the fish they seek, have spent months keeping warm in their cozy winter confines.
When I was a boy, my father would take me trout fishing across the street from Beetlebung Farm in the streams that snaked through the woods of Windy Gates. We would walk or drive to the house that then belonged to Red Smith, the prolific sports columnist who split his time between Chilmark and what my grandfather would refer to as “America,” meaning anywhere off the Island. Red famously wrote: “Baseball is dull only to those with dull minds.” This easily equates to the sport of fishing, for any seasoned angler will confirm that trying to hook a fish takes a great deal of patience and, much like other sports, particularly golf or baseball, a significant amount of time. They were simple and safe fishing trips, always with my older brother Andrew and sometimes with a pal or our dog Lady. In my young mind there were always endless adventures to have climbing trees or searching for gnomes and we always caught plenty of trout.
The first order of business before we set out was to dig for worms, our bait of choice. Andrew and I would dig holes in the compost pile, overturn large rocks or rotten trees in the woods around our house, filling tin cans with a mixture of dark soil and wriggling worms. It was a treasure hunt fit for a child and I always competed with him to see who could find the biggest worm as we each raced to fill our cans faster. Once filled, with my father’s guidance, we constructed our fishing rods using a soda can or a stick. If using a soda can, we tied the fishing line around the center like a belt, then wound around like an actual fishing reel until the six feet or more of line was completely coiled up. This was the preferred method as fishing line tied to the end of a stick left you vulnerable to snagging the underbrush or your own leg as you searched for the perfect fishing hole.
A small, basic hook baited with a worm is then all you need once the hole is located. If the trout are out and hungry it is usually a matter of seconds before you have one on the line.
I’m not a very good fisherman and maybe that is why I have always been drawn to trout fishing. In the clear water of a flowing stream you can watch them dart along with their mouths open as if they were belting out a song. My dad taught me to find a dark hole, usually right up against the stream bank and often on a bend, where the running water has created a small pocket of calm water. As I have grown older I have taken cousins and kids out fishing, just as my dad did with us. Part of those childhood expeditions involved building a small fire to cook our catch in a cast iron frying pan. We would gobble it up to feed the insatiable appetites we had worked up. At the time I never fully appreciated what a delicacy we were feasting on.
Trout is lean and delicate, increasing in popularity as farming practices have begun to produce large quantities at a low cost all over the country. At the same time our appetites for common ocean-dwelling species has depleted natural stocks, driving the prices to record highs and giving conscientious consumers fewer and fewer options. Seeing trout on menus is now becoming commonplace in restaurants everywhere and their small size makes serving them whole a simple preparation that is both cost-effective and beautiful on the plate. Their skin takes on a delectable crispiness with the flaky clean flesh beneath acting as a tender companion to the smokiness of a grill or wood oven, a perfect foil for fats and acids alike. The best trout I have eaten lately was basted heavily in duck fat, roasted in a hot oven and served alongside roasted potatoes with a dollop of aioli and a slice of lemon. The flesh pulled easily from the spine and the bones piled up on the side of my plate reminding me of a cartoon I used to watch where a cat would stick a whole fish in its mouth, holding it by the tail, slowly pulling a clean backbone and head from deep within its throat as it licked its lips clean.
On Tuesday it snowed again, delaying the inevitable blossoms and green grass a bit longer and most likely sending those newly-awakened trout back down into the mud for sustenance and warmth. But with each lengthening day we get a little bit closer to those perfect days when after a long day of work the pinkletinks sing us to sleep.
Whole Roasted Trout
1 whole trout, gutted and rinsed clean
Salt and pepper
Walnut sauce (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 500 degrees or set to broil. Arrange the top rack 6 to 8 inches from the top of your oven. Line a baking pan with aluminum foil and lightly coat with olive oil. Place the trout in the center of the baking pan, drizzle oil over the fish and massage gently to cover completely, then season generously with salt and pepper. Place in the oven, and depending on the size of the fish and the strength of your oven, cook for between 8 and 12 minutes, turning carefully halfway through or when the skin has become golden and crispy. If the fish is burning or browning too quickly, fold the aluminum foil up over to cover or place on a lower rack. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 3 minutes. You can tell the fish is done by inserting a butter knife into the ridge of its back and if the flesh pulls easily from the spine it is sufficiently cooked. Serve alongside walnut sauce and your choice of vegetables.
From Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David
Put 1/2 lb. of peeled walnuts through a mincing machine, then pound them in a mortar with a little salt, adding gradually a cup of water and a little vinegar, stirring all the time as for mayonnaise. Serve alongside trout or your seafood of choice.