EUGENE, Ore. -- McKenzie River guides say the tastiest rainbow trout you'll ever eat are pan-fried over a campfire and served for lunch daily during trout season on the banks of the McKenzie River.
''I guide hard-core fishermen and people just out there having a good time, and all of them say that half the trip is the fish fry at noon,'' guide Greg White said.
The guides charge anywhere from $225 to $300 to take either one or two anglers for a day of fishing from a McKenzie drift boat.
Trout caught in the morning are fried for lunch as part of a tradition that extends back to the time that guiding began on this river.
There's one big difference in the guides' cooking techniques, however. Some skin their trout and others don't.
White pan-fries trout the way his great-granddad did and the way most people do -- with the skin intact.
Meanwhile, the sons and grandsons of Prince Helfrich, one of the men who first popularized guided trips in the 1920s, skin their fish using an unusual technique. They say removing the skin improves the trout's flavor.
The fish that are caught and eaten are raised in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Leaburg trout hatchery and are stocked in the river by boat.
These ''planters'' have tails made ragged by the nipping of the other fish in the hatchery's crowded ponds.
Stocked fish can be identified positively by the lack of an adipose fin, normally located on the trout's back between the dorsal fin and tail. This small fin is clipped off at the hatchery as an aid to identification.
The McKenzie's wild rainbow, cutthroat and bull trout -- any trout with adipose fins intact -- must be released unharmed.
With the Department of Fish and Wildlife releasing nearly 400,000 legal-size trout a year into the waters of the South Willamette Watershed -- 154,500 into the McKenzie alone -- guide Dean Helfrich said the fishing is better now than when he started guiding in the 1950s.
Furthermore, he said, ''Of all of the rivers I've been on and cooked fish -- and I've been on a lot of them -- the McKenzie hatchery rainbows are one of the best eating of the entire bunch.''
Helfrich attributes this to a diet supplement, synthetic astaxanthin, the Leaburg hatchery has been feeding its trout since 1997.
Astaxanthin is a red-orange pigment that fish acquire naturally by feeding on shrimp and aquatic insects.
Trout that don't eat a diet rich in astaxanthin have almond-colored flesh. The addition of man-made astaxanthin to the diet of hatchery rainbows causes them to develop a redder band on their sides and meat of a pink or orange hue.
Hatchery Manager Tim Wright believes that trout fed astaxanthin have a better flavor, although he acknowledges that the flavor difference may actually be a matter of better eye appeal.
Jeff Ziller, the state's chief fish biologist for the South Willamette Watershed District, said his favorite way of cooking trout is to first catch and clean a fish, build a fire, cut a willow stick and roast the trout.
''I run the stick through the mouth and then sharpen the end and poke it back into the meat at the tail end of the fish. Take a couple of short little pieces of stick and punch it down through the sides so it closes up the body cavity, and then I just roast it like a wiener on the fire,'' Ziller said.
''It kind of gets a smoky taste to it,'' he said of trout cooked by his primitive method. ''If you've ever been in the high lakes and eaten fish out of a high lake that way, you'll swear it's the best fish you ever had in your life. And I've done it on the McKenzie, too.''
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