We have all been there: After catching a dink fish, we post the picture to our social media feed—a quick, innocuous attempt at humor. Within seconds, comments from friends start stacking up: “Unless you have hands the size of Shaq’s, I don’t believe that is a keeper,” or “Nice keychain!”
However, when fishing the Kinnickinnic River (“Kinni” for short), in northwestern Wisconsin, there is a great deal of logic behind adding smaller trout to your creel.
The Kinni, a 22 mile-long cold-water-driven ecosystem, is home to anywhere from 5,000 to 12,000 trout per mile, making it one of the most productive trout streams in the country. In regard to juvenile trout production, the Kinni consistently ranks in the 95th percentile and is listed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as a Class 1 stream (the DNR’s highest classification for trout streams).
The slope of the river results in continually moving waters, which create riffles that flush sediment and silt from cobble areas, thus establishing a coarse river bottom. These conditions both facilitate the production of aquatic insects—a trout’s primary food source—and serve as suitable habitat when trout are laying eggs.
“For a spring stream, a groundwater stream, it’s probably one of the best in the Midwest,” said Marty Engel, former fisheries biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, during a July 2014 Pioneer Press interview.
But because the number of trout over 15 inches is low compared to other waters throughout the state, anglers are not allowed to retain any trout over 12 inches.
The idea is simple: the removal of smaller trout means less competition for food, so big fish grow bigger.
“It is a density-dependent thing,” said Heath Benike, fish team supervisor for the Eau Claire area. “We have a lot of smaller fish, but down the road, we would like less, but larger, fish. We are trying to break the stigma where anglers want to release all trout, so we are encouraging people to follow the regulations—they are there for a reason.”
In water ecosystems similar to the Kinnickinnic River, where juvenile trout far outnumber lunkers, by netting small trout and taking them home for a meal, anglers are actually helping trout populations. But the questions always remain: how does one get any meat off such small trout?
Trout crostini is easily prepared at home or streamside. It requires only a few ingredients, which will fit well in any small cooler, and a portable grill. Searing the entire trout over flames allows you to easily pick all meat from the bones. This snack or appetizer is easily prepared, so it can serve as a quick, light shore lunch before hitting the river for that afternoon bite.
Makes two servings of appetizers.
3 small brown trout, 6 to 10 inches, yielding 6 to 8 ounces total
8-inch loaf of French bread, sliced diagonally into 1-inch thick pieces
12 large cherry tomatoes
2 ounces fresh basil, chiffonade
1 teaspoon sea salt, for garnish
Olive oil mix:
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large clove of fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated parmesan
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
To prep trout: Per usual, every trout harvest shout be gutted and cleaned onsite to ensure freshness and great taste. When ready to eat, scale trout with edge of knife by scraping from tail to head to shave off glitter. A duller sheen should remain on all sides afterward. .
To prep basil, olive oil mix and bread ahead of trip: To cut basil chiffonade style (into thin strip), stack leaves atop one another and roll tightly. Slice leaves perpendicular to roll. In a small mixing bowl, add olive oil, minced garlic parmesan and cayenne and mix thoroughly with spoon. Cut loaf of French breach diagonally at 45-degree angle into 1-inch pieces.
To grill trout, tomatoes and bread: Make certain grill is both clean and hot. Place cherry tomatoes on skewer and at rim of grill, far outside center of heat. Lay trout on grill just outside center of heat. There is no need to spray trout with any cooking oil. Cover grill with lid but make certain to monitor trout so it doesn’t burn. Use tongs to flip trout, by gripping at head, after 2 to 4 minutes. Skin should flake off, perhaps with dark muscle—this is a good thing, facilitates picking. Turn tomatoes to heat all sides with minimal charring. Cover with lid, peaking occasionally (ignore the maxim “If you’re looking, it ain’t cooking”). Remove trout after 2 to 4 more minutes, once fully cooked. Be careful with tongs—to remove, tip of tongs should grip head while length of handles run parallel with fish body. Remove tomatoes once they are soft.
Add slice of bread to hot grill and turn quickly and remove to avoid burning.
To assemble: Pick trout meat thoroughly from bones. Add about half a spoonful of oil mix over each slice of bread and spread around. Place two tomatoes atop each slice and smash down. Add picked trout meat to slices and top with fresh basil and a tiny pinch of sea salt.