Fish And Forage
OBSERVATIONS THROUGH HARVEST OF STOCKED TROUT AND FUNGI
I grew up in the Androscoggin River valley, following its path westward through the foothills of Maine and south to the coast. The first fish I met was a brook trout in Oxford County, caught on my grandfather’s gear alongside my mom. And I ate it.
In that moment I couldn’t imagine not eating it. I had heard my grandfather talk up his cast iron trout, and after a day tromping through the brook, I was hungry. My mom helped me measure the fish while I took in every blue and red spot, sparkle of sunshine on its skin, and squiggle of vermiculation. We inspected its stomach contents, battered it in an egg wash and cornmeal, and the three of us smiled at each other between bites. My grandfather seamlessly launched into the stories of catching baskets full of brook trout in his younger years — stories I’d hear on repeat as he aged, and treasure beyond his passing. That day established a connection between us that shared genetics alone cannot: we found our joy and our nourishment from the water.
As I ventured into fly fishing as a teen, I learned to not share the story of my first brook trout encounter with others. I observed comments downriver damning another angler’s fish handling, judgements of those harvesting trout instead of quickly releasing. Catching brown trout in a tributary of the Androscoggin, I watched Maine Inland Fish & Wildlife stock the river dumping gallons of fish-filled water from an overpass. I heard echoes of my grandfather’s voice and felt a burn of shame recognizing how overharvest was likely perpetuated by my own. I released every fish quickly.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I looked beyond the inward to outward forces to make sense of the fishery I called home: the current of this river takes you down a story of colonization and industrialization. More frequently we hear about colonial settlers describing cod on the coast of Maine as being so plentiful you could walk on their backs. Less frequently do we hear about the stewardship of the Wabanaki Confederacy tribes, moving with the seasons along the banks of the Androscoggin River, stewards to this waterway and interconnected ecosystems. Fish have been the lifeblood of humankind in these woods long before fly fishing became a way to tap the vein.
Simultaneously a case study in cultural erasure and mill pollution, the Abenaki name aləssíkɑntəkw was anglicized to incorporate the name of a white guy on land stolen from the Amarascoggins people. Commercial fisheries for salmon and sturgeon proved enough reason to forcefully push any remaining original peoples into Canada — followed by decades of chemical dumping from mills built along the banks. The Androscoggin River earned a new, dirty reputation as an integral part of the Clean Water Act, losing its lore as a fishery and serving as a predictable lesson in industrial negligence.
This history bounced around in my mind while driving the three hours from my home near Portland to the New Hampshire - Maine border, headwaters of the Andro. Glimpses through midcoast Maine showed dry and rocky riverbanks, low water levels dark with tannin. Deciduous forests gradually rolled deeper and higher, and ponds and lakes speckled the roadside for the next few hours. I stopped for spring water, remembering the roadside pull off by replaying my mother’s energetic words: “fill up! It’s clean and fresh; flow seems lower since Poland Springs was sold…” The cold water splashed and woke me from the early morning drive in darkness flow state many anglers know well; light started to dapple the foothills as I continued to follow the river, fog rising gently, excitement building.
As I crossed the river into New Hampshire, having successfully dodged a few moose on the way, the river reminded me of what is possible when you commit to honest improvement: a few rises broke the stillness, birds of prey flew overhead, kinglets whistled gently in the hemlocks. The river is resilient, if we acknowledge the impact of our past and prioritize a more thoughtful future. This section of water is less acidic, higher flowing, and more vibrant than the lower, proving to be more habitable by trout and salmon compared to bass, panfish and pike farther south. This section of water had me craving cast iron trout.
My friend Joe and I waded into the water as streaming sunlight began burning through the mist. Within 5 casts, an eager river chub accepted my fly. A run downstream held a few small and feisty rainbows — not native here but rather stocked through state fisheries management. A deeper pool was occupied by a dense dime of a landlocked Atlantic salmon which lived up to species signature jumping, shining bright each moment above the surface. Meeting this fish felt like a memory, or a feat of collective knowledge: gratefulness welled up within me in recognition of the decisions and actions I was fortunate enough to put-to-use, the borrowed tools and gear that put my directives into action with grace, and the many hours and relationships of humble learning leading up to it all. And recognizing my privilege of accessing this waterway, now healthy enough to support a fish like this after decades of harm (and continued in many ways) — it was a lot to take in. After quick conversation with Joe, we opted to release and seek more rainbows downriver for our menu dreams.
Fishing with the intent to harvest wasn’t much different than approaches for release, in all honesty. Despite the stereotypes of careless or heartless kill, somehow here we were, approaching each fish with care, attention, and awareness. Here in a healthy fishery, we were interacting as part of the surrounding ecosystem. We harvested two healthy rainbows, fat and bright. Situating myself and the fish over a flat river stone, my hands assumed movements of my mother over the sink years ago. I breathed in the warming air, listened to the flow of water, and made the initial cut from anal fin to gills. A swift movement removed entrails. An intact and inflated swim bladder so perfectly translucent brought back the feeling of awe I had at age 7, taking in the complexity and beauty of these fish. Joe and I marveled as the bladder suspended connected organs in the subtle flow of the riverside.
The trees along the Androscoggin could be described as eating the banks, at least that’s what I remember from introducing a Utah-based angler to Maine waterways at one point. The interconnectedness of each web of roots, mycelium of fungi, mossy undergrowth, and seasonal flora is undeniable when you get to know a place through observational forms of recreation. While placing a fly in a drift without drag and matching aquatic invertebrates is more frequently our reference for putting observations into our fishing actions, a walk along the riverbank offers all the more reminder: I scanned the mix of conifers and deciduous trees, looking for elevation changes and rock formations. Doing so brought Joe and I to coral mushrooms, boletes, and polypores.
We slowly meandered our way through the cushion of mossy undergrowth, inspecting stumps of trees long fallen, peeling bark of birches, deteriorating leaf litter for bumps of growth, hoping for fruiting fungi with every glance with similar reward schedule as a perfectly placed fly. The pace of movement is one I’ve grown into, having spent many fishing trips racing to the water, rushing through rod assembly, and shooting my fly onto the water’s surface without so much as a glance at the riverbank community of organisms. Foraging has been a welcome interruption to this urgency, borne through single-minded concepts of success, or what a fishing trip should look like. It leans into a need for deeper contextual understanding for the trails we tread, the spaces we visit, the air we breathe in. The expansive complexity we are met with can be overwhelming, but again by leveraging collective knowledge and grounding self in humble observation, we get the clues we need to reintroduce our presence as part of it all: the imperfect gills of chanterelles as a nod to their unique identification, the spikey underside of hedgehog caps as an exciting differentiation from similar formed boletes, the soft earth overtaken with black trumpets opening skyward while otherwise blending into their surroundings.
Joe and I exchanged excited yelps and curious inquiries with each find. With my knife in hand, I inspected promising specimens and gathered those confirmed to match identifiable edibles. We stashed finds in a cloth sling over my shoulder and found ourselves in a holding pattern: a few steps forward, a hopeful moment hunched over, a glance upward at surrounding trees, and if we were lucky, a few careful cuts before taking the next steps. Stomachs grumbled, and we shifted to prep. I whispered appreciation for the merciful rain that gave these hidden mycelia what they needed to show up and show out, the relationships held between root systems, the beauty of witnessing any manifestation of mushroom from just the right combination of conditions and my lucky course of movement through the woods.
Perched above the Andro now farther upriver into New Hampshire, I dumped out limited supplies from home and we made a plan: smoked and stuffed trout, skillet seasoned and browned hedgehogs, chanterelles, and black trumpets, crispy corals as garnish. Pre-made rice and a mix of scallions and kale brightened our spread, along with a bit of lemon, spices, and olive oil. The picnic table quickly filled with camp stoves, pans, and staging of mise en place. Gently wiping pine needles and dirt from stipes and caps, our finds were processed and fire stoked. While the whole trout slowly cooked with herbs and spices filling from each body cavity, Joe and I took turns searing bits of mushroom and frequently taste testing. We couldn’t help smiling. I watched Joe take bites and establish a sense of differentiation between how each type of mushroom tasted, finding favorites, and stealing second samples.
It’s a rare delight to come off the water to more than a granola bar — and even more incredible to have a full meal sourced from the woods and waters you’ve gotten to know over the course of a day. Granted, it felt like I’d been getting to know the Andro since I was a kid, and I will never be done building my relationship with this ecosystem.
FISH AND FORAGE PERFECT SETUP
When fishing is but one piece of a day's adventure in search of a harvested meal, it doesn't hurt to have a tool and technique that gives you the best chance at success. Paired with the ESN Reel and RIO's FIPS Euro Nymph line, the SENSE 3106-4 effectively delivers your tight-line nymph rig with precise accuracy, and makes a great choice when supper is at stake.
*** Disclaimer on wild foraged mushroom consumption: please do not use this blog entry as guidance for beginner foraging. We recommend seeking mycology community groups near you, taking a class in foraging, and referencing some of the many identification resources. ***
- Fresh caught trout of regulation size for harvest
- Fresh bunched herbs such as thyme, rosemary, sage
- Red pepper flakes
- Ground salt and pepper
- Sliced lemon
- Scallions (wild ramps can be substituted in here if sustainably foraged)
- Black trumpet mushrooms
- Olive oil
- Optional: Chili and Lime seasoning
- Prepare the trout by removing innards and washing out body cavity in clean water. Recommendation to keep head intact, removing organs by gripping gills and carefully pulling.
- Once cleaned, salt and pepper the body cavity and if you’re feeling spicy, sprinkle some red pepper flakes as well. Place bunched herbs and scallions (chopped or full, your preference) lengthwise along the backbone of the fish, threading up to the mouth. Add black trumpets (cut into strips or with preference for smaller mushrooms) and finally, add slices of lemon along the length of the fish.
- Gently oil the skin, add a few sprinkles of seasoning, and place over coals. To avoid sticking, consider using tin foil with some olive oil. Maintain low and slow heat, periodically checking the meat until it becomes firmer and cloudier as it cooks, and turn the fish over once one side is almost ready.
- Remove trout from fire and squeeze remaining juice from lemon slices, adding fresh lemon juice if desired. Garnish with finely chopped scallion.
HEDGEHOG MUSHROOM + BLACK TRUMPET RICE
- Hedgehog Mushrooms with spikes under cap removed, then roughly quartered
- Black trumpets, whole or in rough julienne strips
- Ground salt and pepper
- Olive oil (can substitute for butter)
- Chopped scallions (ramps can be substituted in here if sustainably foraged)
- Pre-made rice (bagged variety or prepared from home)
- Heat skillet with oil to near smoking point. Cook meatier cuts of foraged mushrooms (hedgehog in this case) in hot oil with sprinkling of salt, pepper, and chopped scallion, stirring regularly before reducing flame/heat to medium. Maintain heat until mushrooms brown fully and taste test for desired texture; in this case, we cooked longer for a firmer, crispier finish. Remove first batch from heat and repeat with second variety, adding additional olive oil as needed at the start. Set aside.
- Finally, add pre-made rice to oiled skillet and stir continuously over heat until warmed. Combine rice with prepared mushrooms. Enjoy!
CHANTERELLE MUSHROOM + KALE SIDE
- Chanterelles (cinnabar or late season little foot chanterelle varieties also work well) cut/torn into rough quarters for larger specimens, in half for smaller
- Chopped kale (dinosaur or curly)
- Chopped scallions (ramps can be substituted in here if sustainably foraged)
- Olive oil (can substitute for butter or coconut oil)
- Lemon slices for juice
- Heat skillet with oil to near smoking point. Cook kale until crispy at high heat with regular stirring, reducing flame/heat to medium and adding salt and pepper to taste (optional: a few shakes of red pepper flakes). Remove from heat.
- Cook chanterelles with regular stirring over heat until desired texture is reached with chopped scallions [NOTE: chanterelles should be well cooked to avoid digestive discomfort].
- Return prepared kale to skillet and stir until combined. Squeeze slice of lemon at the end. Enjoy!
This story references time spent on Wabanaki Confederacy lands + water. Readers are encouraged to contextualize their understanding of home water and learn decolonized histories of place; head to some of the links below to get started learning more on indigenous histories and contemporary initiatives for land back, equity, and healing in Maine and beyond.
Bri Dostie is a Maine Recreation and Fishing Guide, Founder of Confluence Collective, and avid fly fisher. Her home waters include mid coast, central, western, and northern Maine as well as tidal waters near her home in southern Maine. She has been foraging for wild mushrooms for four years with the support of mycology mentors, peers, and continued learning opportunities. When not outside, you can find her illustrating or creating art, often inspired by nature.