Belated Mother’s Day Dispatch: Truite Au Bleu

On Mother’s Day, I caught my first five small trout on a dry to prepare Truite au bleu for my wife. The last time I attempted the dish I worked for Gordon McCrae on the M+ Ranch in Island Park, Idaho. The McCrae Ranch butted up against the more famous Trude Ranch in Shotgun Valley where Old Man Trude purportedly tied his famous fly. Somewhere I had heard—probably from my boss, Gordon, who wintered in Las Vegas—that Truite au Bleu should always be prepared with live fish.

I had been wrestling barbed wire alone all morning near camp—putting in corner braces, splicing broken strands, pounding staples, that sort of thing. Gordon had long since driven off to chase blondes at the A-Bar or The Lodge—women whose hands his wife, Wanda, always referred to as “back-scratchers” because of their long, painted nails. I knew one of the blondes fairly well, and knowing what little I knew about her, I was pretty sure Gordon would never return to camp in his pickup until the next morning, if then, to “check” on my “progress.” Of course, to get the pack rod (a four piece fiberglass Fenwick) that I always kept tied behind the saddle seat, I had to catch my horse, and that task took maybe twenty minutes, although I did get to see plenty of country on foot.

Judging by the size of the little feeder creek running through the sagebrush toward the reservoir, I figured I’d need at least half a dozen fish to make a proper lunch. It was still June and I had no allusions about scaring up anything with weight and girth. In fact, I felt happy just about the thought of fishing for the first time in two or three days.

As quickly as I could, I burned a hot alder fire down to coals while heating the brine in the big soup kettle to a simmer, tending the fire long enough to finally bring the water/vinegar solution to a rolling bubble and then at the last minute adding the carrot I’d been saving for the horse. Next, I strung the rod together, seated the Medalist, rigged up, tied on a Trude, walked a short distance, and cast the Trude to the most likely-looking spot in the gulley below the fenceline: a dark pool given shallow but shadowy depth by a single log dam around which the creek moved without managing to spill itself over the log.

The cast went a bit long and landed on the log, but the instant I pulled the fly into the eggnog foam, a head appeared and ate the Trude. The fish turned out to be a ripe female spawner from the reservoir, full of eggs, of course, but weighing maybe a pound and a half. Astonished by her size and hungry as hell for her soul and her flesh, I unhooked her and worked my way back to the fire by holding my rod in one hand and her, writhing and squirming, through the gills with the index finger of my other hand.

Then I dumped her tail-first into the scalding water of the kettle. The boiling brew almost immediately consumed her life. I watched the process until her body curled into itself and the simmering brine transformed her silver and scarlet sides to a fine shade of grey and turned the dark green-spotted skin on her back to a deep blue the shade of the sky.

I’m sure some way exists to disembowel a poached rainbow trout for presentation on a plate, paper or ceramic, without ruining all that delicate flesh that melts on the tongue. Better, I found, to forget about trying and run a blade down the back and just flip and strip the fillets on each side free from the carcass, tossing the entrails, bones, head, and tail to the buzzards.

In those salad days, of course, I considered myself too proud to learn anything about trout roe or sashimi or broth. Today, I’d save the roe and prepare it for toast points and vodka, but I guess this dispatch ought to be enough for now.

I have a son, Myrlin, in Tempe about the same age I was back then. He thinks the huge carp and bass in the Arizona State Research Pond not far from his place are beneath testing his skills as an angler. I tried eating Columbia River Carp when I lived in Inchelium on the Colville Reservation, but that, as the writers say, is another story.

Myrlin wants me to send him his rods, reels, and flies so he can fish Arizona tail waters and eat rainbows. So in between being water-boarded nearly to death by drowning from grading freshman essays, I’ve been three weeks trying to tie a dozen Wooly Buggers and Pheasant Tail nymphs for him to cast to those carp in that pond for me. I guess I’d best quit now and send him those flies and his gear. I’m sure he’ll appreciate them—if he isn’t off chasing blondes.

P.S. Old Man Trude, my boss Gordon’s grandfather, only fished with the fly named after him, which, incidentally, is reputed to be the forerunner of all hair-wing flies. Actually, Carter H. Harrison, a former mayor of Chicago and former Collector of Internal Revenue Taxes, tied the first one in 1901 in A.S. Trude’s library at the ranch. Harrison tied the original from the clipped hair from the flank of Trude’s red spaniel dog and a strand of red worsted yarn in the library’s rug before later modifying the pattern as follows:

Body: Red yarn wrapped with silver tinsel
Wing: Red squirrel hair tied long to show the dark band
Hackle: Red rooster

Not long ago, using a bead-headed nymph version of Harrison’s original, I caught, killed, and ate fish in the same creek where I first prepared Truite au Bleu.


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