Sunday, January 3, 2010

Keeping a Trout for Dinner?

I have not taken a trout home for dinner in a few years. Out of the few dozen rainbow, brown and brook trout that I brought to the net, each fish was released back to the stream and swam back into the depths. I practice catch and release fishing for the health of the streams, knowing that if we were all to keep every fish caught, the rivers would soon be empty.

The simplest reason why I release the fish that I catch is that I do not enjoy killing a fish. Rainbow and brown trout are beautiful creatures, sleek, elegant and graceful. When holding a fish in hand, I feel the power of its body and I see the beautiful dark purple spots of a brownie or the long pink stripe of a rainbow. To kill such a beautiful and graceful creature feels somehow wrong.

Perhaps I have started to view a trout as more than just a fish, like a pet. Although other cultures eat dogs as part of their cuisine, we would never want any harm to come to our canine friends. I feel a similar attachment to the trout of the stream, as if all of the rainbow, brown and brook trout are like pets that I sometimes have the opportunity to look at and hold for a few brief moments.

Despite my appreciation for trout, I have been thinking that next spring when I find myself back on the water, I may take the occasional trout home for dinner to fulfill the basic human need for food. On a fishing trip a few years ago, I kept two good size rainbow trout. I broiled the fillets with olive oil and salt, and they tasted amazing.

To eat a trout for sustenance is part of being human. In the Bible, after the great flood, God told Noah that humans could eat animals, as long as they removed all of the blood from them. The blood was seen as the very life force of the creature, and to not eat the blood was a way of respecting the animal. God told Noah and all humanity that we are able to consume other animals as long as we respect them and acknowledge their Divine source.

While the Bible acknowledges the relationship between humans and animals as hunter and prey, many of us today have lost this fundamental aspect of being human. We purchase our beef and chicken at the grocery store, packaged in cellophane, sterilized and removed from all connection to the animal from which it came. Most of us urban dwellers never kill an animal ourselves in order to eat. Instead we leave that job to others in meat processing plants far away.

Killing a trout is not easy, and I do not enjoy it. I try to end the life of the fish in a humane manner. I do not use a creel, keeping the fish alive for hours, which I consider cruel. Instead, I dispatch the trout as quickly as possible and I place it in a cooler that I bring along with me for that purpose.

The fly fishing tool used to kill a trout is called a priest, with a wooden handle and a brass end used to strike the fish. We call it a priest because you are offering “last rights” to the trout. However when dispatching a fish, we can also think of ourselves as priests, rabbis or ministers. Just as we expect our religious leaders to conduct themselves to the highest ethical standards, we too must kill the fish in the most humane way possible.

Picture: a fly fishing priest.

Ending the life of a beautiful trout is difficult and I sometimes feel guilty doing it. But it can also teach us spiritual and ethical lessons. We realize what it actually means to kill another animal and so we strive to treat animals with respect. We also remember that a trout is one of God’s creatures, a true miracle of creation. While we are able eat this fish, we do so with a heightened sense of appreciation for the trout itself, and for the world in which it lives.


Unknown said...

if we all had to kill our meals ourselves there would be a lot more vegeterians out there.

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Good point Martin!

Anonymous said...

Hi Rabbi,

I am a chef (retired) and in the over 40 years that I worked in my profession, 20 of those years I was engaged by restaurants that specialized in seafood that were freshly caught. In fact the only frozen product I ever used was shrimp.

In the very beginning of my career I worked at a very well know up-scale restaurant in NYC. This restaurant not only had tanks for keeping Maine lobsters alive until ordered by the customer, it also had separate tanks for brook or rainbow trout and black sea bass, which were also kept alive until an order request came into the kitchen.

Many restaurants have lobster tanks very few have the ability to keep fresh fish alive until an order request comes into the kitchen. I subsequently worked in other restaurants where if I was able to get “live trout” delivered, I took advantage of having very “fresh” product.

Lobsters and a large variety of shellfish that must be alive until used for human consumption, and the aforementioned fin fish species are in-fact the only animals I ever killed. I think I did this procedure in a humane way with as little “pain” to the animal as possible.

I remember on a Shabbat evening service, Rabbi Chaim Stern (of blessed memory) told a fable about a fisherman and a beggar; the beggar who was hungry came upon the fisherman at his labors and asked for something to eat.

Rabbi then asked this question, and I para-phrase, what is a better mitzvah, giving food to the beggar to eat and send him on his way? Or spend the time necessary and teach him how to fish, so that he too can learn a trade which will then satisfy his hunger of both food and self worth?

I do not understand the need for hunting just to hunt, what does it prove? Than one is a better archer or shot then the hunter? That you can out think an animal because you have cogitative abilities? I think that in your blog you came to the correct conclusion.

Freshly caught trout of any variety are sweet and delicious. With freshly killed trout and only freshly killed trout it is possible to prepare a dish called in French Truites au Bleu. The fish is poached in a court-bouillon, acidulated seasoned liquid and the natural film that covers the trout is not washed. This is what gives the trout a blue look.
Happy Healthy New Year,

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Thank you Stanley for that wonderful and interesting response!

Joe Webb said...

Hi Rabbi,

Discovered your blog after the TU article. Very good reading! I love this post about C&R and eating trout. I started practicing C&R almost 3 decades ago, long before I even took up flyfishing, mostly because I just had no desire to kill fish, and the hatchery-reared trout that I was catching in my W.Va. home waters lacked any real flavor unless you could cook them immediately on a campfire.
But I think there is something deeply spiritual--and spiritually healthy--about occasionally killing your own meal. In some way, it seems to connect us to the truth of God's providence. To have that experience even once rearranges our perspective in what seems to me to be a holistic, organic sense of the created order.
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. You're heading straight to my bookmarked blogs!