Wheat harvest is in full swing as I drive south across sun-burnished slopes of the Blue Mountains. Dust devils send chaff spinning above disturbed fields of stubble. Mourning doves flush from the edge of the road, gathering gravel for their crops. It’s been two weeks since I last wet a line and stream trout are on my mind.

Storm clouds begin to gather up canyon when I ease into the Umatilla River. Water temperature is a cool 56 degrees. Ideal for wading in shorts and sandals and safe for late summer trout. I peel line from my reel and make a practice cast to the slack side of a small pool when “wham!” a keeper-size trout darts from the shadows and blasts my fluffed-up Stimulator before it barely settles on the water surface. Slightly befuddled with early action, I miss the hookset.

Working upstream to a log jam, I hook a half dozen small trout from the deepest part of the hole. The largest one jumps three times before it pulls the hook. What some anglers call a volitional release. At the head of the complex hole, where broken water plunges under a giant log laid cross-wise by the 2020 flood, a foot-long trout grabs my fly. This king of the hole goes straight for a root wad, taking my 3-weight fly rod to the limit. After a spirited battle, I lead the dark speckled beauty to the shallows for release. Most days I would be content to quit after landing such a fine fish; maybe spend the rest of the afternoon napping in an Adirondack chair on the cabin’s shaded deck, but not today.

Two hours later, I add up my total: 21 trout brought to the net, ranging from 5 to 12 inches long. I pack a 9-incher with blood seeping from its gills in a layer of wet grass and place it in the side pocket of my vest. This one is headed for the frying pan, I tell myself.

            I don’t usually write about culinary pursuits. I fail miserably with pie crust, make brownies from a packaged mix, and have been known to wander off while hamburger buns turn to charcoal when left toasting in the oven. But I stay on task when preparing fish on the kitchen stove or over campfire coals.

My favorite fish to cook and eat – based on the number of meals consumed over a lifetime – is small trout. Whether rainbow, brook, or cutthroat, it doesn’t matter. They are all good when served with hash browns and green beans or peas fresh from the garden.

Many of my fisher friends are strictly catch-and-release. They don’t know what they are missing. As for me, I occasionally keep a breakfast trout. One that fits neatly in a small frying pan. Not as a main course, but as a side dish to accompany a raft of bacon and a large hen’s egg served scrambled or sunny-side-up.

Preparation starts with removing the trout’s entrails at streamside, including the gills and traces of kidney that line the backbone. Pat the skin dry, salt and pepper the body cavity, and lightly dust with flour or panko. Fry in bacon grease or butter until the eyeballs turn white and moist meat is easily stripped from the backbone. Save the head for your dog and you will have a friend for life. Eat the tail and dorsal fin as if potato chips or give them to the dog to further reinforce your relationship.

I remember how Mom would drop fresh harvest trout into the kitchen’s flour bin, grab them by the tail, and beat them with a “thump” against the side of the bin to shed loose flour. One by one she placed them into a smoking hot cast-iron skillet, where they sizzled and popped until placed on the table for consumption. Back then, it took a 10-trout limit to feed our family of seven.

“I’d like to catch two keepers for dinner,” a friend said on a recent foray to a small trout stream that flows from the western flanks of the Blues. Given the challenge of fishing skinny water in the middle of a blistering hot summer day, I replied, “I’m hoping to hook a 7-incher.”

I fooled four trout that measured 4”, 6”, 6” and 5” on three different fly patterns while Eric met his goal with a pair of legal-size trout caught on a copper-blade micro-Rooster Tail. During the ride back, he described his favorite trout dinner, “spring water brown trout – ones that feasted on freshwater shrimp – cooked up in beer egg flour batter.”

On a backpacking trip to the Wenaha River several years ago, me and two pals dropped down from the Cross Canyon trailhead to camp near Crooked Creek. To keep our packs light, trout were on the dinner menu the second night. We released several decent-size trout during the day, figuring to cash in on the evening rise. Unfortunately, a drenching thunderstorm put fish down. Two hours of anxious casting led to the harvest of four barely legal-size trout that fit neatly in a Boy Scout vintage frying pan after their heads were removed.

A cursory examination of cookbooks from our home kitchen revealed several recipes that remind there’s more than one way to prepare a trout. In other words, don’t get stuck on the pan-fried version. One book, The Shoalwaters Finest Dinners, describes “smoked trout flay” or a custard version of smoked trout served on a bed of spinach and sorrel chiffonade salad. In the classic, La Techinique, Jaques Pepin not only shows how to properly filet and debone a trout, but describes a superfine dumpling. His quenelles mousseline version is made with heavy cream, egg whites, and the flesh of trout, a.k.a. a trout mousse. A favorite recipe from Cooking the Sportsman Harvest is trout chowder. Imagine flaky chunks of trout meat floating in a sea of potatoes, chopped onions, corn, and evaporated milk.

The Tucannon, Walla Walla, and Umatilla Rivers are at summer low flow with populations of rainbow trout eager to rise to the fly. Jubilee Lake is a great still water venue for stocked trout within a two-hour driving distance of Walla Walla. A backpack trip to a high mountain lake in the Cascade or Wallowa Mountains might take you to cutthroat or brook trout, respectively. If you favor Eric’s brown trout recipe, you’ll have to travel east to the Rockies. Whether your preference is trout flay, trout mousse, trout stew, or fried trout, it’s all good.