In the food section of March 12, the price for trout caught by fishermen at Virginia Mountain Trout Co., in Monterey, Va., was incorrect. The correct price is 13 cents per ounce if cleaned by the fisherman, 15 cents per ounce if cleaned by company employes.
For almost a century now, state wildlife commissions have been stocking trout xl in lakes and streams, acting on the principle that today's fishermen deserve the pleasure of catching trout just as yesterday's anglers could.
And just as nature could not possibly provide all the trout that fisherman catch, no number of fishermen could begin to answer gourmet America's call for trout for the table. So businesses such as the Virginia Mountain Trout Co. have begun to thrive.
Beginning with fish eggs shipped on ice from Washington State to Monterey, 50 miles west of Staunton off Route 250, and finishing with 7- to 12-ounce 18-month-old fish, Virginia Mountain Trout raises rainbow trout as other farms raise cows or chickens.
"Good pure water. That's what it takes," says president David Johnston, standing beside one of the six 100-foot-long raceways that his company's founder diverted, 25 years back, from a little mountain stream tucked in between ridges of the Allegheny Mountains in Highland County.
The same stream water funnels through the basement, the hatching chamber, of the handsome rough-wood building housing Virginia Mountain Trout. At one end of the basement stands the trout equivalent of an incubator -- a four-foot rack of shallow pans, covered with screen and trickling with water, where salmon-colored eggs are beginning to bulge toward hatching.
Once the eggs hatch, the squiggly little fingerlings are transferred into one of four 30-foot-long concrete tanks, where the fish will grow for their first four months. During those first few months they are fed a commercially prepared salmon ration -- a grain-based mix supplemented with fish meal, 50 percent protein, 15 percent fat, that looks like ordinary goldfish food. Once they reach 6 months old -- a good four to five inches long -- their diet shifts to a commercial trout ration, made of similar ingredients but only 38 percent protein and 12 percent fat.
One 30-foot long tank in this basement hatchery holds as many as 15,000 fish. They dart around like slimmed down tadpoles: green and speckled, with only a hint of the rainbow-pink markings they will gain as they grow old. You can already see individual differences among them. Some are jittery, moving up and down the length of the tank without end. Others just languish, sinking down toward tank bottom. Some are khaki hile others shimmer more silvery. Some are plump. Others look skinny. You can just imagine how these characteristics will show through as they reach fishy maturity.
None of these fish will spend all of its days in the comfort of Virginia Mountain Trout's home turf. Producing 150,000 pounds of trout a year takes more room than the company has, and Johnston literally farms out his trout for the middle months of their lives to eight corralled streambeds at farms in the surrounding area. There they are fed a controlled ration, just as at the Trout Co., and only when they approach harvest age -- 18 months old -- do they come back for a last few months to the place where they were born.
"This really is pretty much a clearinghouse here," says Johnston. In the raceway at his feet, full-grown rainbow trout stream past. You can see the same personality traits in these 10- to 12-inch fish that you saw in the small fry in the hatchery. Some are active, sleekly sailing from end to end, occasionally breaking the surface of the water. Others mosey along with the rest of the crowd. Now the pink-and-speckled shimmer characteristic of rainbow trout shows on many of them.
The rainbow trout is not the native trout of this area. It grows wild in the cold mountain streams of the American West. But it is faster-growing and fleshier than the Eastern brook trout that lurks in mountain streams nearby, making it easier to raise commercially and easier to sell. David Johnston isn't a big fisherman himself, but he hears tell that these days there aren't many native trout to be caught in the mountain streams of the East. And most of those that get caught were dumped into lakes or streams just days before through state trout-stocking programs.
Biologists who study the native fish population don't exactly agree with Johnston. Michael Smith, deputy assistant director for public affairs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, indicates that historically, it is true that the numbers of native Eastern brook trout have dwindled. "The native Eastern brook trout was one of the first species to be affected by deforestation, bad farming practices, and other such influences," says Smith. "But I wouldn't say that it's a bleak picture."
Virginia fish biologists, for example, surveying wild trout streams around the state in 1979, estimated that 30 to 40 pounds of trout could be found for each of the 2,030 miles of stream in the state. Of that 60,000 to 80,000 pounds of trout, about two-thirds were estimated to be native Eastern brook trout. The other one-third were either brown trout or rainbow trout, originally state-stocked species that had reproduced and gone wild.
The experience of fishermen might seem to prove those figures wrong, simply because of the character of the three different trout species, according to John Kauffman, supervising fishery biologist of Virginia's Game and Inland Fisheries. Since the brown and rainbow trout in wild streams descend from a line of fish bred for easy feeding and easy access, they are easier to catch than the wild brook trout.
"It takes a lot more skill and patience to catch a brook trout," says Kauffman. "The brown and rainbow trout are used to seeing people around. They are bred to take artificial food best, but not to compete best in the wild. When you come upon a native trout you have to sneak around a lot more. You have to crawl through the bushes, and they tend to hide under rocks and such the minute they see you."
Experienced trout fishermen contradict Johnston's appraisal as well. "Some days we'll go out and bring in 50 wild brook trout. You just have to know where to go," says Don Mawyer, co-owner with Chuck Kraft of Blue Ridge Outfitters in Covesville, Va., 18 miles south of Charlottesville. Operating out of the Covesville Country Store, Mawyer and Kraft sell handmade trout flies, high-tech fishing reels and double-sprung hunting bows. They also lead hunting and fishing expeditions, both through their native Virginia and also out into the wilds of the Rocky Mountain west. Get either one of them talking about trout, and they'll pull out their snapshot collection of the big ones that they and their customers have caught along the way.
Brookies, claims Mawyer, are decidedly better than any stocked or raised trout to eat. "For one thing the color is different: the flesh is redder. For another the texture is different. Stocks or raised trout are mushy."
The difference in outer color is distinctive, with the wild brook trout sporting bright red fins and speckles. The difference in flavor is not quite so discernible, since trout is a mild fish anyway. One might compare the difference between a wild brook trout and a bed-raised rainbow trout to that between the beef of free-range and feed-lot cattle. The flesh of the rainbow trout grown by the Virginia Mountain Trout Co. has the softer texture and oilier flavor of a fish that has led an easy life. A preference for wild brook trout may depend more on the fish's mystique and the challenge of the hunt than on the flavor or texture of the meat itself.
Johnston hears a lot of fish stories, because many fishermen, discouraged for lack of a catch, come to fish in the privately stocked pond adjoining the Virginia Mountain Trout Co.
"When the state stocks, you have opening day, and most of the fish are gone that day," says Johnston. He gestures over toward a fishing area downstream from the raceways, where Virginia Mountain Trout are confined for the sake of hungry fishermen. "We do a good business on opening day," he says. "People go to the river and they don't get any fish, so they come down here."
Some fishermen come straight to the Trout Co., says Johnston, because they don't have to bother with a license. This weekend and next, during the Highland Maple Festival, things will be so busy that the pond will not be open. When the Trout Co. pond is open, fish caught there cost 13 cents a pound if the fisherman cleans them himself; two cents a pound more if the Trout Co. cleans them.
Twice weekly, workers haul 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of fish out of the raceways, then clean and pack them in their streamlined, stainless steel processing room. Only 20 percent of the haul will remain with bone, most of it going into freezers to serve members of the public who come to Monterey to buy fish. The other 80 percent gets boned or filleted and shipped out on ice to wholesalers or directly to restaurants. In addition to local Monterey restaurants, which offer Virginia Mountain Trout traditionally rolled in cornmeal and fried, The Greenbrier, The Homestead and Graves Mountain Lodge serve trout from Monterey.
A considerable amount of Virginia Mountain Trout moves into the Washington area as well, according to Annette Nalevanko of the Washington Fish Exchange in Alexandria. Her records show, for example, that in the first six weeks of 1986, Washington Fish sold 1,290 pounds of 80-ounce boned trout alone, and half of that, she estimates, came from the Virginia Mountain Trout Co. Her other fresh trout supplier is located in North Carolina.
Fish wholesalers can get fresh trout from Idaho or Montana, says Nalevanko, but Washington Fish prefers the nearby producers, even if their prices run higher.
"We feel that even though the price may be a little higher, it is worth it for our customers that the fish are fresh, and weren't caught the Wednesday or Thursday of the week before." Washington Fish supplies Virginia Mountain Trout to more than a dozen Washington-area restaurants.
While Washington Fish Exchange (1200 1st St., Alexandria, 549-4000) does not wholesale to any local markets, it can fill individual orders for any number of trout, large or small, as long as a customer places an order a day early.
Trout enthusiasts can buy fish directly from the Virginia Mountain Trout Co. as well, if they are adventuresome enough to take to the steep and winding mountain-pass roads that lead to Highland County. When you walk in the door of the rustic trout farm building, don't set your hopes on a fish like the one you see hanging on the wall, though.
She was a beauty, a 16-pounder, with a firm fleshy belly and a rainbow of colors splashed across her back. She was a special one that Trout Co. workers singled out about 10 years ago, letting her grow over several years until she became egg-bound and faced a natural death. When they found her struggling in the water, they scooped her out, stuffed her, and mounted her on the lobby wall.
"That fish probably ate up I don't know how many little ones," says Johnston with a smile.
He wouldn't want to sacrifice too many fish to stuff one 16-pounder, but Johnston is clearly proud of the one rainbow trout that didn't get away. TRADTIONAL MONTEREY TROUT (4 servings)
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup white cornmeal
1/3 cup vegetable oil
Mix thyme, salt, and cornmeal in large shallow bowl. Rinse fish and pat dry. Roll in seasoned cornmeal. Let sit to dry about 10 minutes. Bring oil to medium high heat. Fry trout just until it begins to brown on each side (about 4 minutes per side). endcol MAPLE TROUT (4 servings)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup orange juice
1 1/2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon horseradish
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients but trout to make marinade. Place trout in shallow baking dish. Pour marinade over trout and let sit at least 3 hours, turning once. Bake covered at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. SHIITAKE TROUT (2 servings)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley plus more for garnish
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
2 scallions, sliced into delicate diagonals, plus 2 more scallions for garnish
2 to 3 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
Juice of 1 lemon
Melt butter in sesame oil in skillet over medium heat.
Place ginger, garlic, parsley, and soy sauce in butter and oil and sizzle to soften. Briskly toss sliced scallion and shiitakes in pan to blend all ingredients thoroughly. Remove from heat.
Spread foil in roasting pan big enough to accommodate 2 fish. Oil foil lightly with sesame oil. Rinse fish and pat dry. Place fish in foil, then spread mushrooms and scallions over fish. Sprinkle with lemon juice and seal foil over fish securely.
Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Serve fish and topping enhanced with chopped fresh parsley and delicate sprigs of scallion green.