I was serious about lunch. I was going to catch a fish and cook it on the spot. “There's nothing like the flavor of the wilderness, no seasoning like a fresh kill,” I reasoned, though in reality I’d never experienced these things.
A professional guide had consented to take me fly fishing. I’m not sure why. The publicity wouldn't do him any good, as he was in the process of leaving the area to take a job managing a fishing lodge in the Bahamas. What's more: He was suspicious of my designs and asked not to be identified in the article.
We went into the woods on a sharp October day, over several waterfalls, through a rhododendron thicket and down a steep, rocky bank to the river. I lugged a 6-pound, 9-inch, cast-iron skillet to cook the fish along with an old pump stove, borrowed men's waders and boots, and a pre-assembled fishing pole.
We brought a photographer. The adventure was staged — staged, but not artificial ... quite.
The writing in the trees
In the water, the guide confidently glides ahead of me, up to his knees in the water. “Always walk from downstream to upstream because [the fish] are always facing up in the current, looking upstream waiting for food to come to them, so you always approach from below,” he says.
Behind him, in the bulky, chest-high waders and oversize felt-bottomed boots (designed to prevent me from slipping on the wet rocks, although I do anyway), my submerged limbs don't move where I intend. Even with polarized sunglasses to see deeper in the water, I still can't make out any fish.
By my side, the fly I’m using drifts, a tiny tuft at the end of a bright green cord. From underwater, the guide tells me, the bait looks like a caddisfly. It's a clever assemblage of dubbing (an amorphous, fibrous material), the hackle feather of a rooster (to help it float) and elk hair.
The guide worries about overfishing the river, and he's wary of my design to kill a fish. He doesn't fish for his limit of four trout per day, the maximum number the state allows fishermen to take from designated wild trout waters. In these rivers near where he grew up, he always throws his catch back. Among fishermen such as my guide, killing trout is taboo. “Your fish are your business partners,” he says. “Guides are good enough at catching fish that if they kept all the fish they caught, there wouldn't be any more.”
At first, it’s hard to believe this river is overfished; we seem to be the only people for miles. But when my fly snags in the branches overhead — the result of a wild cast — we notice the remnants of other lines draped like scrawl among the branches. They’re unsettling; spooky, in a way. The spent lines serve as reminders of my own delusions about the outdoors, some romantic impressions maybe shared by others. I am not an intrepid adventurer trying to survive in an untouched wilderness. I am an amateur, a city mouse, a bit of a sensationalist, even.
The guide gets the first fish. It happens in an instant. The fish writhes out of the water like a mirror catching the sun. It's a small rainbow trout, about 4-inches long, too small to keep for lunch. (The state says fish must be 7 inches to kill.) But for once, eating is not on my mind. The fish is mesmerizing. I can't stop looking at its mouth: It has lips. It looks like it could talk. Its pinkish-white palate has the indentations similar to those of a human tongue.
In my hand, the trout is surprisingly strong. Its body feels like a spring, a slick and solid line of force. When we release the fish, it hovers momentarily in the current, dazed, and then darts off out of view.
Imagine if you were to order a sandwich, the guide says, and when you took a bite, someone jerked your head across the street to a pet shop and dunked it in an aquarium. That's what getting caught is like for the fish, he says.
The state doesn't stock this river. The fish here are wild, the guide explains, although most of them aren't native species. Rainbow and brown trout populate this area. Nineteenth-century fishing enthusiasts brought them here from the West Coast, and the Western species quickly bested the native brook trout. Now, places where the brook trout remain are small and dispersed, the waters enclosed by natural barriers, waterfalls and the like.
Upstream, we come to a deep pool where we catch two fish. Both are rainbows, about 9 inches long. I yank mine clumsily out of the current and swing it haphazardly about.
At about the same time, the guide pulls one in. It's bleeding around the mouth. We decide to keep that one, since odds are it will die if we put it back. I release my fish, which darts off like a shot, and we take the guide's bleeding catch to the bank.
Off the hook
The killing is my job. I find a stick for the death blow, and strike, but the blow lands crooked, leaving the fish twitching. The guide, embarrassed at my inability to finish the job, grabs the stick and does it in.
Closer to the trail, we get ready to cook. The guide points out where to cut the fish. I slice its belly from the base of its tail to its throat. Inside, its organs nestle neatly together like a diagram in a text book. There is no blood. It's like a tiny museum of fish anatomy: heart, stomach, intestines. A cluster of tangerine globes dominates the space: eggs. They are too beautiful to go to waste. They wash downstream while I set up the stove, and I am secretly glad to be off the hook, so to speak.
We commit the fish's innards to the water and put its whole body in the hot pan. Turning the trout over, it changes from a river dweller into a lunch for a landlubber. “It was much prettier alive than dead,” I say. The guide suggests that's the moral to the story, but I'm not so sure. I expect the dead fish will have an aesthetic quality of its own: It will taste good.
The trout is like a piece of fruit. The flesh falls from its spine in plump, moist pieces, bound together by crisp skin. It has a slight mineral taste, and doesn’t need salt and pepper (which I forgot at home anyway). It must taste like the river. There isn’t a great difference between this fish, the freshest I have ever eaten, and the store-bought variety. Mostly, it's a matter of texture. The taste is better, perhaps, but not so much that I would advocate every epicure take up fishing.
We leave the bones to the water and hike back along the river. We came, fished and ate. But aside from just showing up the fish, it seems, has declined to participate in my article. It didn't speak to me or make a great show. I haven't had a culinary epiphany; I have no newborn desire to live off the land, no resolve to turn vegetarian. Even in my stomach, the fish retains the hidden meaning of its river life. My gain is the truth of my own experience: lunch.