Just a few decades ago, if you had asked an Arkansas fisherman where to go to catch a limit of trout, he would have probably thought you were crazy. You see, before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started building dams on some of our state’s rivers in the late 1940s and early ’50s, trout fishing was nonexistent in The Natural State. Trout aren’t native to this part of the world and weren’t available until they were stocked as mitigation for the loss of warm-water fisheries changed by the dams.
Today, if you asked an angler where to go to catch trout, that person would still look at you like you were loony — not because there aren’t any trout, but because Natural State trout-fishing opportunities are world renowned.
In the 67 years since the first trout were stocked in the cold dam tailwaters, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, through an aggressive stocking program and innovative, intensive management, has developed some of the world’s finest trout fisheries. People come from throughout the world to catch rainbows, browns, brook trout and cutthroats in the freezing-cold waters below dams on the White, Little Red, North Fork, Spring, Little Missouri and Ouachita rivers.
Arkansas features more than 150 miles of tailwater trout streams where experts and novices alike can catch a few fish for dinner, try for the trophy of a lifetime or simply enjoy catching and releasing a bunch of fish. All that’s required are a fishing license and a trout permit.
If you enjoy eating trout, catching a few for the dinner table usually isn’t difficult at all. Just be sure you’re fishing where keeping your catch is allowed. The AGFC stocks millions of trout each year, and most stockers will eagerly gobble up all sorts of live baits and lures. Fishing is good year-round if water conditions aren’t unfavorable.
When I was a youngster growing up, I didn’t like to eat the trout often given to our family by friends and relatives who caught them on weekend fishing trips. Maybe that’s because my mother and grandmother were much more likely to cook fish such as bluegills, crappie, bass and channel cats that have mild-tasting, flaky, white flesh. Rich-pink trout tends to have a much more pronounced flavor than these other favorites, and I think I was a bit put off at first by the taste of trout.
I know now, though, that when fresh Arkansas trout are properly prepared, that distinctive flavor is what actually makes them so good.
Small trout are tasty deep-fried, but when cooking fish over half a pound, I prefer grilling, pan-frying or baking. Trout lend themselves especially well to good sauces, so I often whip up something new when trout are heading to my dinner table.
I love trout slow-cooked in a smoker, too. Fish prepared this way can be served as is, with a nice sauce, or deboned and used as an added ingredient in many delicious recipes.
The most important thing I’ve learned is, don’t be shy about experimenting. Try some of this, a little of that — a new seasoning, a new sauce, a new herb mixture. Your culinary adventures with trout are limited only by your imagination.
To get you started, here are some of my family’s favorite recipes:
4 to 6 trout, about 1/2 to 3/4 pound each
1 1/2 quarts brine (recipe follows)
3 1/2 cups pecan shells soaked in water for 4 to 12 hours, or a similar amount of hickory chips
1 cup rock or ice cream salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
6-8 cups water
Combine the brine ingredients in a saucepan, and heat the mixture, stirring until it’s dissolved. Turn off the heat, and add an additional quart of water. Refrigerate the brine until needed.
Brining improves the flavor of smoked fish. Rinse the trout in cold running water, and place in the brine solution. I use a large oblong slow cooker with a lid that can hold up to a dozen fish if I decide to smoke more. Soak the fish in the brine in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. (I prefer 24 hours.) Remove the fish from the brine, rinse in cold water, and pat dry.
1 1/2 cups water
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Mix the marinade ingredients, and pour the mixture into a 1-gallon zip-seal freezer bag. Add the fish, and make sure they are thoroughly coated. Refrigerate fish in the marinade for at least 2 hours, making sure to turn the bag over occasionally.
Prepare the smoker, and spray the racks with nonstick oil. Arrange the trout on the racks, making sure they don’t touch. Smoke the fish, using the soaked pecan shells or hickory chips, for 2 to 3 hours until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Smoker temperature should not exceed 200 degrees.
4 tablespoons butter
4 slices onion
4 lemon slices
4 trout, 1/2 to 3/4 pound each, pan-dressed
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Inside each trout, place 1 tablespoon butter, 1 onion slice, 1 lemon slice and a sprinkling of black pepper. Secure with a toothpick. Arrange in a baking dish, and bake 15 to 20 minutes or until the fish flakes easily.
Pan-fried Trout Dilly
6 small trout, pan-dressed (scaled, gutted, heads removed)
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons fresh chopped dill
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
Melt the butter in a skillet, and add the dill. Dredge the fish in a mixture of flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper. Saute in the dill butter until the thickest part of each fish flakes easily with a fork.
Grilled Trout With Herbs and Vegetables
1 medium tomato, cut in chunks
1 small zucchini, cut in chunks
1/2 cup seasoned croutons
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup melted butter
4 ounces grated mozzarella cheese
4 trout fillets, 1/4 to 1/2 pound each
Mix the first six ingredients. Brush both sides of each trout fillet with butter, and place each fillet on a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Spoon one-fourth of the vegetable mixture on each fillet. Sprinkle each with an ounce of grated mozzarella. Seal the foil, and grill for about 15 minutes, turning once. The fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.
Grilled Lemon-Pepper Trout
Any number of pan-dressed trout, about 1/2 to 3/4 pound each
Extra-virgin olive oil
Rub the fish with olive oil; then sprinkle all over with garlic and lemon-pepper. Place on a hot grill, and cook until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Turn only once during cooking, but run a metal spatula under the fish every couple of minutes to be sure they don’t stick.