Grilled Trout, Columbian Exchange, Invasive Worms…


The tug was slight. Almost perceivable on the tackle I was using. Almost.  I had six pound test on what was essentially a bluegill fishing rod. I had half a night crawler skewered onto a circle hook with two minuscule split shot a foot up the leader. The bite was happening however, I just needed to do my job and set the hook.

I was drowning my worm at Wilson Ponds, a series of canals and public access fishing areas located downstream of the Fish Hatchery in my home City of Nampa Idaho. The ponds themselves are nothing fancy – a few improved trails, a large number of super loud geese and stocked rainbow trout for the catching. On the next tap, I lifted the rod out of the holder and the “fight” was on. I reeled about 10 times then lifted the 11 inch trout out of the water. That was two for me, my limit was filled. I beamed, took a sip of my malted barley pop and smiled at my children fishing next to me.   

Growing up in Idaho nothing seemed more American, more Northwestern, more Idahoan, than digging a few worms, grabbing my pole and heading off to the local pond. Like with many things you assume as a child, I was so very wrong. History is a funny topic that way. Things you think you know to be true – like Henry the 8th being a hunchback, or that Washington used wooden teeth – are provably false. In that vein many of the things that we think are American are actually not.

Case in point is the humble earthworm. The night crawler. The bait shop stop. The earth worm is not a native to North America. Its natural home is northern Europe. During the last ice-age the native North American earthworms were crushed under several thousand feet of ice. According to the Smithsonian it is hard to make a living eating organic matter while it is all being crushed and scraped away by a glacier.  As such the native North American earthworm went the way of the dodo. The earthworms we have now came across in the hulls and with the tree roots of the old world settlers.

The process of bringing new and invasive life to the new world and at the same time taking things back to the Europe became known as the Columbian Exchange. It has had a remarkable effect on the world at large. Think about potatoes – they originated in the Andes Mountains, then spread to Mexico. Discovered by the Spanish. Taken back to Europe, given to the Irish to then become integral to Irish cuisine. You can’t think about Irish food without the potato – from colcannon to corned beef and cabbage. Potatoes are Irish, but they are not Irish at the same time.

The same can be said of the tomato. What cuisine do you think of? Italian? Me too. But tomatoes are not native to Italy. They are native to Mexico. Imported to Italy to become a staple of the cuisine. All because of the cross pollenization of the Columbian Exchange. Polenta is Italian too, right? Wrong, corn is not native to Europe. Polenta is a part of the Columbian Exchange.

This exchange was not “good” in many ways however. Things came that should not have. Invasive plants, invasive wildlife and invasive invertebrates. Think pigeons, cheat grass and honeybees as examples. Oh, and don’t forget wild hogs too. All of these things are potentially harmful to the native environments, but in many ways the cat is out of the bag. But not with Earthworms – at least not all the way yet. Some places in the upper mid-west still have “earthworm free zones” where it is illegal to sell or use earth worms to fish. These areas have signs and fines attached to fishing with the wrong kind of bait. They are trying to maintain the last bits of what life was like before the Columbian Exchange in North America.

The trout across most of the west are not native either. Most of them, unless you are in some seriously isolated areas, are hybrids of the California rainbow trout. In the 1880’s, fish management practices led to the introduction of the coastal rainbow trout throughout the NW. A brief history of hatchery science illustrates that the first fish hatcheries in the west started in California. The fish the biologists decided to stock and raise was the one native to the California coastal system. Unfortunately the when the science became replicateable, ie transferable to other locations around the west, the fish squeezers did not look to the local fisheries for gene stock. They used instead the coastal rainbow – the ones they knew how to grow and how to breed. Why change what works, right? 

According to Dr. Chris Walser, Professor of Biology at The College of Idaho, “The introduction of coastal rainbow trout is basically an artifact of historical fish management” he explained. These hatchery trout were able to breed and have, in the past 140 years, passed their hatchery genes to the native redband trout. As such “you don’t find pure genetically pure populations (of redband trout) unless you are in an isolated location—a location not historical stocked with hatchery fish” explained Dr. Walser. This means that the first Californians to invade the Northwest came in the form of trout, not Bay Area Ex-Pats.

So when you are fishing a pond located DIRECTLY below the runoff of a fish hatchery, like I was, you can bet your bacon that the fish I caught were Californian Rainbows. I caught them on European earth worms surrounded by Russian Olive Trees and Canadian Geese. Man, I love America.

Recipe –

Grilled Trout with Old Bay and Shrimp Sauce

Old Bay Sauce

1 clove garlic

1 cup Amber beer (any beer really, but something you like)

1 tablespoon old bay seasoning

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 tablespoons cream

1 cup pink shrimp, raw and thawed

1 stick of butter, cut into 4 segments

1 zest of one lemon

Salt and pepper as needed


Bring the garlic, beer, Old Bay and lemon juice to a boil in a small sauce pan. Reduce by half the original volume. Turn down to a simmer and add the cream. Let reduce the liquid reduce for 5 more minutes. Turn down the heat on the pan to low and add the shrimp. Stir a few times until the shrimp are cooked, about 2-3 more minutes.

Next add in one segment of the butter. Whisk it into the sauce until it has disappeared. Then add the next. Repeat this until all the butter is gone. (Do not add all the butter at one time. This can cause the sauce to “break” separating the fats from the liquids. Not a good thing.)

Next add the lemon zest. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper as needed.

Grilled Trout

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon Old Bay

1 Lemon, juiced and zested

Splash of beer

3-4 trout, depending on how well you did and size, gutted, head and tail left attached

Salt and Pepper, as needed


Heat grill to medium-high. Clean grill grates with wire brush, wipe with paper towel and then “season” them with an oil soaked rag. This will be a smoky mess, but it will keep the fish from sticking.

Add the garlic, olive oil, Old Bay, lemon juice, lemon zest and beer to a mixing bowl. Whisk together. Add fish to the mixing bowl and coat the fish evenly with mixture, inside and out.

Place fish skin side down on the grill, laying on its side. Let cook for 2-3 minutes, then flip and cook for 2-3 more minutes. Remove to a serving plate and cover with a paper towel. If the fish is sticking at any point simply wait a little longer, it will come off on its own

(This timing depends on the size of the fish, an 11’ trout took me about 3 minutes per side. A big steelhead sized trout will take much longer)

Pour the shrimp and old bay sauce on the trout and serve with your favorite side! Enjoy.


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