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How to cook trout: A Coloradan's guide to fresh fish from the water to your plate

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Want fresh fish? Follow these steps and you'll be eating Colorado trout in no time. 

Fresh seafood in Colorado?

It seems like an oxymoron, right?

Well, unless you moved here from California or Texas – like so many in the Centennial State as of late saying “What's this white stuff falling from the sky? Hurry, get in the car and drive like a jackass!” – are a moron yourself, or some combination of the two, you know Colorado is home to some of the greatest fishing in the world.

Yeah, I said it, and I'm damn proud of it.

Colorful Colorado, my home, contains some of the most beautiful and (mostly) pristine wilderness in the lower 48 states. Which reminds me; rule No. 1, before catching, gutting, grilling and enjoying your fish is “pack it in, pack it out,” which simply means take all your trash with you when you leave.

There's nothing sadder than seeing cans, bottles, plastic or any other trash left behind when you're out in mother nature. Want to throw your McDonalds wrapper on the ground in your front yard? Go for it! But litter in the mountains and you deserve a mountain lion mauling.

So, now that you packed that extra King Soopers bag to put your trash in while you're fishing – along with all your gear – you're ready to go. “But, where can I go, somewhere close to Denver, where I'm guaranteed to land a fish, Rich?” you ask. If I told you that, my special spot wouldn't be so special, would it?

Do this; get in your car, drive west and you'll find somewhere to fish.

As a kid of a blue-collar household, we used to go camping all the time. It was our vacation, a cheap way to get away from the stress of daily life and enjoy the great outdoors for a few days. We used to always go to lakes and reservoirs, sometimes rent a boat, but mostly just fished from shore, using bobbers with either powerbait or good ol' fashioned night crawlers.

Last summer, I fell in love with fishing all over again.

I bought a new rod a reel combo from Bass Pro Shops and decided to learn how to effectively use lures. It turns out, Fort Collins is a haven for anglers, with tons of small ponds on natural areas that are filled with massive bass, and miles of the Cache La Poudre River for your trout. And it turns out, fishing the river is a ton of fun. So much fun, I recently bought a fly fishing rod and reel – as a novice, I'm horrible – and am planning at least another 100 trips to the river this spring and summer.

So, like I said earlier, pick a place and fish it. If you're having no luck, move upstream some, or around the banks of the lake to a new spot. Bring beer – cans only, they're easier to carry empty because you can crush 'em, and they won't break on a rock – bring a snack, bring bug spray and sunscreen. These are all essential to having a successful day fishing.

There's a reason why they don't call it fishing, not “catching,” and if you don't catch a fish on your first attempt, don't give up.

Remember, you're outside; look at the birds fly by you, listen to the rip-roaring current of the water, drink more beer. Enjoy yourself for chrissakes.

This is after all, nature. Fish are fickle, and if you're not catching anything, it could be because you're terrible, or it could be the wrong time of day, wrong type of bait, or you're fishing at the wrong depth.


Catching the fish

Your hours of waiting, cursing, casting, losing lures to rocks, untying knots and drinking in the hot sun have left you buzzed, tired and hungry, you're about to give up and call it a day until; something takes your bait!

That unmistakable “tug, tug” of a trout has taken the bait, all you have to do is set the hook – pull the rod up abruptly, with some force – and reel it on in.

After a little fight, you finally see the fish. It's within arms' reach. You want to grab it right away, but you remember to dip your hand in the water first, as to not hurt his scales.

Trout are a delicate little fish and you can kill them on accident quite easily. Then you have to eat it, or that's just bad Karma, man.

After your hand is wet, grab the fish (I know, “The fish is all slippery,” you say. You can do it, champ.) and make sure not to squeeze to tightly, or you'll kill it. Take the hook out, using a pair of needle nose pliers if need-be, and decide if it's big enough to eat or not.

This depends on a variety of factors, but for the most part, practice catch-and-release. I used to think it sounded stupid, too, but you don't have to eat every single fish you catch. And it's much better for the ecosystem if you don't. One nice-sized trout (anything over 13”) will be enough for a grown man for dinner.

Of course, if you're at a reservoir where they stock trout – as many do in Colorado – you might as well eat what you catch. Rivers are stocked too, and it's easy to tell a stocked rainbow from a wild rainbow or brown trout (the wild ones are much more colorful). Taking a small wild trout is frowned upon, although, there's no size limit in Colorado for trout. Keep in mind different stretches of water have different rules for not only the sizes of fish you can keep, but the type of bait you can use as well.

Paying attention to where you are and what's going on around you is essential in the mountains; loose too much focus and you'll be drenched by a Rocky Mountain thunderstorm, attacked by a wild animal or get popped by Forest Rangers for fishing illegally. Oh yeah, buy a fishing license. Just do it.


Preparing your fish

OK, you fished all day, finally caught one and declared, “By God, I'm going to eat this feast you have given me!”

But how?

First, grab some water.

Next, cut the head off, just below the gills, and cut the tail off. Then, make a superficial cut, about 1/8” deep, lengthwise. Don't cut too deep or you'll puncture an organ and ruin the meat.

Pull all the guts out and wash out the inside of your fish, and you're ready to cook! (Put the head, tail and guts into a plastic bag and take it away from your camp or a hungry bear might come searching for an easy meal.)

Now, you have a few options – like cutting the fish in half and having two fillets, then grilling it over an open fire – but I like to keep the fish whole and cook it in aluminum foil. It's incredibly easy, basically idiot-proof even.

If you want something simple, squirt some lemon on the fillets and put a bit of butter in between them before you wrap it up in the foil.

If you want something a little more delectable; first squirt some lemon on the fish, dice red onion and put it between the fillets, along with two strips of your favorite bacon. The onion's oils help bring out the flavor of the fish, and the bacon grease helps keep the meat tender and moist, while infusing the fish with that bacony goodness.

Wrap up the foil and throw it on the fire, flipping every five minutes or so, giving it ample time to come to temperature (145 degrees).

If you're feeling extra hungry, cube some potatoes and fry them up next to your fish in a cast iron skillet with salt and pepper, or grill asparagus for a few minutes over the open flame. Of course, when camping, you're limited to the ingredients you brought along, so get creative people!

While your fish is grilling in it's aluminum foil wrapping, enjoy a beer and tell stories of your fishing prowess, or just stare into the fire and contemplate the universe.

Either way, after 20-30 minutes, your fish should be finished cooking, depending on the temperature of the fire. Unwrap the foil and look at the skin. Is it peeling away from the meat very easily? The fish is done. Is the meat firm and flaky? The fish is done. If you're unsure, wrap it back up and put it on the fire for a few more minutes.

When you're sure it's done, grab a fork, pick your way around the many, tiny bones and enjoy the rich, buttery taste of fresh fish that you not only caught, but prepared yourself. In the wilderness nonetheless.

If you follow these steps, you're going to be enjoying fresh Colorado seafood in no time.

Tight lines and bon appetit!

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