Time for Trout: A lifelong angler reflects on the trout that swim through his family tradition

I'm gearing up for the statewide opening of trout season Saturday. In the past several years, opening days have been special in my family, because my nephew, T.J. Filus of Jeannette, has grown old enough to join us -- the next in a line of anglers in the family.

My grandfather, John W. Hayes of Swisshelm Park, was a consummate outdoorsman and amateur nature photographer who planted seeds of conservation that continue to sprout in his progeny. At 78, my dad, John G. Hayes of Harrison City, continues to be a talented fly tier and devoted catch-and-release fisherman. He taught me early to understand my place in the natural world and responsibility to it -- a gift that led directly to my job as outdoors editor of the Post-Gazette.

In ours, as in a lot of Southwest Pennsylvania families, there's always wild game in the freezer. Telling the story behind the entree provides a special connection to dinner that you just can't buy at the supermarket. And trout, with a biology and flavor that are equally delicate, have been the source of countless meals and family lore.

I started fishing at 3, but my dad recalls that I was 7 years old when I caught my first trout at Armstrong County's Cherry Run. It was a hatchery-raised trout stocked there by the state Fish and Boat Commission in a program that still is paid for solely by the trout anglers who use it with no contribution from the state's general fund.

At the hatchery, trout are fed cornmeal pellets. Commercial fillets and stocked trout have a pale white flesh that is less flavorful than that of their wild cousins. Soon after being released into the wild, they learn to eat natural foods, and the finely scaled skin blossoms into more robust colors and the flesh turns a rosy pink with a mildly gamey disposition.

When your father is a fisherman, you're exposed to all sorts of weather, even at a young age. I remember wading wet in sneakers to keep my 10-year-old body cool in blistering summers, and fishing in a foot of snow with the mercury so low my dad pulled the car to the edge of the creek and blasted the heater while I stuck the rod out the window.

I learned much of what I know about trout fishing on Little Mahoning Creek in Indiana County, where our "camp" was a wall tent pitched on a lot that bordered the water. The whole family fished: my dad, mom, me and my younger brother and sister.

In the evening, Dad and I would build a fire, wrap the field-dressed catch of the day in foil with dabs of margarine and a little pepper, and toss it on the grill for just a few minutes until the flesh flaked off with a fork. It was delicious beyond compare, but part of that may have been the context in which dinner was served. There's something about catching the meal, cleaning it, helping to build the fire, cooking it and serving it to the family that leaves a kid feeling grown beyond his or her years.

Those dinners -- part of a hands-on, do-it-yourself, outdoors lifestyle of taking responsibility and adapting to changing conditions -- instilled in me a work ethic and service mentality that remain a part of me today.

Over the years I was lured to the contagious nature of fly fishing. While I enjoy plugging the shorelines for bass and fighting a tail-walking steelhead, at heart I'm a catch-and-release fly fisherman with a lingering love for trout, and I don't kill them anymore. Raising and stocking hatchery trout costs trout anglers $2.73 per fish in license fees -- and I'm happy to release mine to get at least a couple of catches out of each fish. It's legal to harvest native trout -- Pennsylvania's state fish, the brook trout, or wild browns and rainbows that trace their lineage to ancestors stocked by anglers more than 100 years ago. But at this stage of my angling life, native trout are a precious resource that I'd rather let go.

On good days when I get it right, the rod, line and fly become an extension of me. I choose the correct pattern for conditions, cast to the perfect spot, fish it so naturally the trout thinks it's real and -- BAM! -- it's a strike. Because I catch and release, I don't feel like the predator -- the trout thinks I'm the prey, part of its particular little ecosystem, part of something wonderful and more important than I'll ever be, sharing in the eternal circle of life.

Sometime after Saturday's 8 a.m. opening, if the weather and the fish cooperate, my dad, brother-in-law and I will be on the creek teaching T.J. where to cast, when to set the hook, how to play the fight and land his trout. He'll help to clean it, cook it and serve it to the family -- the next loop in a cycle that winds back through the generations.

Grilled Trout

PG tested

  • 1 medium trout (or commercial fillet)
  • 2 pats margarine (or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil)
  • Pepper to taste
  • Aluminum foil

On a wood fire or charcoal, place a grill about 6 inches over a bed of red-hot coals. Cooking over less temperature-consistent flames may result in burning.

Tear off about 12 inches of foil, place it on a work area shiny side up with a corner pointing toward you, and spread margarine or oil across a 6-inch swath from the left corner point to the right.

For a field-dressed trout (with or without the head), splay open the sides and place flesh-side down over the greased strip of foil. For a fillet, lay it across the greased foil. Pepper to taste.

Wrap the foil around the fish and crimp it closed. Place on the grill for 3 or 4 minutes, flip and grill for 3 or 4 minutes more.

-- John Hayes

Stuffed Trout Mahoning

PG tested

  • 1 medium trout (or commercial fillet)
  • 1/4 sweet onion
  • 1/4 green bell pepper
  • 2 medium mushrooms
  • 2 strips thick-sliced bacon
  • Pepper to taste

Cut the onion into crescents, the pepper into long slices 1 inch wide and the mushroom into meaty slabs and slice the bacon strip into small pieces (increase proportions for additional trout). Fry the bacon pieces on medium-low heat until the white fat is opaque and the meat is not crispy and add the vegetables.

Sizzle for about 4 minutes in the bacon grease, flipping and turning, then push the bacon-vegetable mixture to the side of the pan. Splay open the sides of the field-dressed trout and fry flesh-side down for 3 or 4 minutes until the meat is white. Lightly pepper. Flip it on its side, scoop the bacon and vegetables into the cavity and sizzle for about 2 minutes, peppering to taste. With the vegetables still inside, gently flip the trout, lightly pepper and cook for another 3 minutes.

With a commercial fillet, cook flesh-side down for 3 minutes, lightly pepper, flip, scoop the bacon-vegetables on top and cook for 3 minutes. Serve with the stuffing inside or on top of a fillet.

-- John Hayes

On the web

Find John Hayes' recipe for Trout Martini at post-gazette.com/sports/ outdoors and click on his PG Rod & Gun Club blog.


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