A sharp knife slides from the anal opening up the belly of the trout to the jaw. Wet hands are slick with slime. The smell mingles with the wet wood of an old boathouse at Dexter Lake, moldering orange life jackets, squeaking oarlocks, Ole Woodsman fly dope and the voices of my dad and his St. Lawrence University friends. They are here to fish and camp, tell stories and lie awake to the deafening sound of bullfrogs outside a once great camp. I’m a kid, glad to be included. It is 1969. The smell of trout has never left me.
Every time I catch one, up the South Branch of the Grasse River or at Coolwater Lake near a fire lookout where I work in the Bitterroots, the smell brings me back to that dock where I was first shown the still beating heart of a trout and the flies in its stomach. It’s a smell both visceral and fleeting. It’s a smell from dark depths and sunlight. It’s a mix of wetland bog, forest soil, Adirondack water and something else. The smell’s not the same as that of meat pulled from between thin fish bones after sizzling in the frying pan. Yet some of that smell remains when I swallow it down and it becomes my flesh.
Recently I rode a motorcycle at dusk down a mountain river valley. My jacket was plastered with a new hatch of flies off the river and when I stopped, I couldn’t believe it. The smell was trout. All those mayflies and caddis flies and stoneflies flattened against me smelled like trout. Or was it the other way around? The smell of trout was really the smell of flies. Their food was their flesh and theirs became mine. When we eat trout we are really eating flies. And following it back further, the flies feed in the water, under the rocks, eating plankton that need sunlight. We are water and air, insects and fish, light and dark. Our lives are nearly as brief as theirs. My dad and some of his friends have died. The old Dexter Lake camp became singer Shania Twain’s. And I wonder if the fish still rise on the lake and the bullfrog voices still echo. We are all in this together, living and dying, smelling of trout.