To Catch and Keep: Trout Fishing for Dinner

Rainbow TroutArticle by Contributing Writer T. Wansleben.

When I told my girlfriend I caught a ton of fish today she replied by asking where were they.  I explained that I put them back, claiming that I wasn’t sure if the area was designated catch and release so I leaned on the side of caution.  Sure she said, in a tone letting me know that this was about as truthful as any fish story.

“Well next time bring some home; if you’re going to spend all that time out on the river we might as well get a couple good meals from it.”

“No problem, next trip I’ll keep a few.”

Now it had been 15+ years since I had killed, gutted, and cooked a fish that I caught, but I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t 100% on my game with catch and keep. There were a couple things I had to sort out to make sure I was going to be a man of my word.

First was my ethos, yes I followed the catch and release religion and I was concerned of being snubbed by my fellow fly fisherman as one who turned to the dark side of the “catch and keep” crowd. But the reality is that many of the trout waters I fish in New England are “put and take” fisheries.  Meaning that the trout are stocked for recreation and not to create a self-sustaining population, so taking a legal limit isn’t really harming the fishery. But to settle my insecurity I decided that the first fish caught for the day would be set free.

Second, to be comfortable with any kind of wild food preparation is being prepared for the task. I just needed the right gear and process so that the act of keeping my catch wasn’t going to drastically eat into my fishing time. Easy, a simple 3 point plan was all it would take: kill, clean, store.
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After I caught the fish, I had to decide how to kill it. Two methods I used, one was to smack its head on a rock which works well, just have a good grip on the fish and give it a good whack.  The second was to hold the fish down and stick your index and middle fingers into the gills and pull the head back breaking the backbone and severing the neck.  I usually use the latter though it tends to be a bit messier.  Rainbow Trout 2Then I usually find a forked stick and insert one end into the fishes severed neck and out the mouth so it comes to hang in the crotch of the fork.  This makes it easy to carry in one hand and it can hold a limit of fish.  If continue fishing I will anchor the fish stick in some slack water to keep it cool until I’m ready to leave.

To clean the fish, the main equipment here is a sharp Fillet Knife; most sporting goods stores sell one for less than $20.  I have an old Rapala my dad gave me when I was a kid; I put it through the knife sharpener and it was good as new.  I do all my cleaning streamside, I find either a grassy or mossy area to rest the fish on, put the knife behind the pectoral fin and cut the head off then slit the belly starting at the vent and remove the innards all of which I place back into the river to recycle back into the system.

Gutting a Trout

For storage in cooler weather I found that a plastic grocery bag is pretty handy to throw the cleaned out fish in, I can hang it off a tie down cleat in the back of my truck until I get home.  For warmer weather or if you have a car, the best option is to put the fish in a cooler on ice or with freezer packs; I would advise not using your regular lunch cooler unless you want it smelling like a perpetual Long John Silvers’, have a dedicated fish cooler and just rinse it out with a little bleach and water every now and then.  A good tip is to put the freezer packs in an old Ziploc to keep them clean or do the reverse and put the fish in a Ziploc if the fillets are small enough. One idea is to use a Styrofoam cooler, they are easy to get for free, ask around someone may have a leftover from a meat or food delivery and use a bungee cord to secure the lid.  If I’m not cooking the fish within the next few days I vacuum seal or wrap in plastic wrap, label and freeze.

Now I have a freezer full of trout that will be going into the smoker or on the grill this summer and shared with family and friends, all it took was a little convincing and a willingness to be out of my comfort zone as I stumbled through the process, but as I always say, no one is born knowing how to do this, we all have to learn and that’s the beauty of Harvesting Nature.

About the author
TTom Wansleben Harvesting Natureom Wansleben grew up hunting and fishing in the upper valley of New Hampshire where his passion for wildlife conservation led him to earn a B.S. in Natural Sciences and a M.S. in Conservation Biology.  Tom has over 15 years of experience in wildlife habitat management where he has worked throughout the western and northeastern United States for the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust.  Tom currently works as the Stewardship Biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in their Connecticut River Valley district.   When he is not taking care of public lands Tom is feeding healthy addictions like fly fishing, bowhunting for whitetails, chasing waterfowl and turkeys, cooking wild foods and celebrating it all with craft beers. Connect with Tom at and on Instagram: @h2ofowlernh


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