I spent my summer mornings out of Old Phoenix Lake in Sonora, California, with my Uncle Dusty. Just as the sun was rising, we would quietly walk down the long path to the boathouse. We stepped softly on the boat ramp, so we didn’t scare the fish. Then we slipped into the fishing boat and quietly motored out onto the glass lake. Once in our favorite fishing spot, nestled in the tulle-lined waterways, the golden sun would show herself and the casting would begin. Quiet talk, lessons on how to stretch my cast out a little further, fish tales and sips of coffee and hot chocolate happened.
I treasured those moments. My uncle taught me how to tie lures on the line, where to place weights and how to watch the water for the perfect place to cast my line. Just as the water bugs and flies danced over the water a strike would happen. With the ease and grace of a pro, my uncle would reel in catch after catch. For every three fish he had strung on the line attached to the back of the boat, I would bring in one. The lake was usually all ours, a private classroom where one fisherman taught his great niece how to slow down, breathe and take in the quiet.
Lessons on the Line
Every fishing trip unfolded the same way. Once the sun was up and the soft winds blew and the chop on the water formed, it was time to motor in, but not without a lesson. He would get my line snagged on something and I had to get it released, or I had to cut it and start all over again. Or if I had done my best that morning, it was my turn to steer the boat back into the boathouse and start the clean-up process.
This meant wiping down the seats and motor, removing any debris from the propeller and, lastly, the equipment. I oversaw the rod and reel inspection, making sure pole lines received a close inspection for knots, tangles or wear. Sometimes my job was to restring the rods and clamp the weights back on with the tiny pliers, then tie on the lures. After we packed the boat up with the cleaned equipment, we said a “thank you” to the lake and said a silent prayer that tomorrow, we would return with yet another round of prize fish for supper.
Cleaning and Cooking the Catch
The cleaning and cooking were a shared time. Patiently my uncle would help me learn the art of descaling and cleaning fish. He would attempt every year to get me through the queasy bits with the help of a ginger biscuit tucked into one of his many fishing vest pockets. I stood by his side and watched how he used a wet stone to sharpen his fillet knife. He would then show me how to hold the tail as the sharpened knife slid under the skin and rested just above the fish’s spine. Gracefully that gentle sawing motion of the knife slid effortlessly up the spine to just below the gills. When the first side was complete, my uncle would place the fillet on the tray, then he would turn the fish over and gracefully repeat the same motions. We never disposed of the bones, head, or tail. I placed them in a bag to rest in the freezer. During the summer, my uncle would use those for his famous cioppino, those flavorful bones create one of the best fish stocks I have ever tasted.
My aunt Pat was the cook in the family. She would slip a skillet on the stovetop, adding in slivers of fresh garlic from their garden, olive oil and a touch of red chili flake. Once the oil was sending smoke wisps out of the pan, it was time to sauté our catch. Minutes later, glistening in that perfumed oil, the fish was on a platter. Sprinkled with fresh chopped parsley, chives and coarse sea salt. Pat took the extra step of drizzling the hot oil from the pan over the greens and fish for the perfect presentation.
Trout Recipe Tradition
Contributing to those family meals meant teh world to me. Learning what work it took to catch and then clean those fish helped me learn some of the best lessons I’ve ever received. We sat around the table laughing, joking and telling a few fish tales to the family. Then the meal always ended the same way: My uncle Dusty leaned over to kiss my aunt Pat on the cheek and said, “Patricia, you have never cooked fish from our lake so perfectly, thank you.” He then would turn and say, “Kate, tomorrow we set our lines for the big one, get some sleep tonight, don’t stare at the stars all night long.” Then off he would go to his office to catch up on the Giants baseball game, work on his stamp collection or plan some amazing adventure on the other side of the world he and my aunt would enjoy.
I would slip outside with a blanket and watch the last traces of sunlight leave the lake. The wind would calm then the lake would still. I’d watch big mouth bass leap out of the lake to catch the last of the straggling bugs for their dinner. I would recall the lessons my uncle taught me that day. I’d make a plan about casting further, staying quieter, and looking for a new secret fishing spot. But what I really thought about was every second I had with my uncle on that magical Old Phoenix Lake.
- 4 whole trout, descaled and center cavity cleaned
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
- 8 sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 8 sprigs of fresh parsley
- 2 lemons, thin sliced
- 2 oranges, thin sliced
- 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
- olive oil
- Light the lump wood or briquette charcoal in a charcoal chimney or mound inside your grill and let burn for 20-30 minutes.
- Season the trout center cavity with salt and pepper. Place 4-6 lemon and orange slices, 2 sprigs of each rosemary and parsley then fill in any remaining space with the fennel.
- Place four kitchen twine strings under the trout and space evenly down the fish. Carefully tie the trout closed using the twine, making sure to do a double knot. Rub fish with a good quality olive oil.
- Oil the grill grates and place the trout on the hot grill, cook for 5-7 minutes on each side. Enjoy!