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Column: Clearing the waters on muddy tasting fish

Great Outdoors by James Murray

It’s funny some of the things you inadvertently overhear - especially if you listen hard enough.

I was sitting by myself at a local coffee shop recently, eating breakfast and minding my own business, when I ‘inadvertently’ found myself listening in on a conversation at the table next. I overheard one of them mention a local lake that I have enjoyed fishing quite often over the years. So I ‘inadvertently’ strained to listen a little closer. The other fellow said he didn’t really like fishing this particular lake because the fish always taste muddy.

“Something to do with the mud at the bottom of the lake” he said. “Fish taste like clay, no matter what you do, they just never cook up properly.”

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The other fellow agreed and they began talking about some other lake. I couldn’t quite catch everything they were saying or figure out which lake they were talking about, and, by this point, my eggs were getting cold so I went back to eating.

The muddy taste in trout has nothing to do with the mud at the bottom of a lake. It is caused by a chemical compound called geosmin. The two primary producers of geosmin in freshwater lakes are the blue-green algae you see on the surface of some lakes, and actinomyus bacteria which causes decomposition of organic material on the lake bottom. Algae and actinomyus bacteria release geosmin into the water (it is actually released when the living algae and bacteria die) which trout breathe in through their gills and then transfer, through the bloodstream, into their skin, flesh and muscle tissue.

Geosmin accumulates in the skin, fatty tissue and muscles of a fish and are only eliminated with time once the algae bloom clears and/or decomposition slows. The rate of elimination is dependant on water temperature and the fat content of the fish, which is species and age (size) specific. Ironically both algae and decomposition increases in warmer water, while it takes longer for a fish to eliminate the geosmon compounds from their system in cooler water due to metabolism rates.

Although fish can still taste muddy in the fall, they are more of a problem during the hot summer months when the algae is in full bloom. The problem diminishes as water temperatures cool down and are less likely to occur in lakes which are relatively deep and low in organic matter. The problem can also exist in lakes with a high degree of clay particles that are suspended in the water. The clay absorbs the geosmin that is subsequently passed through the gills of the fish.

It can be hard to predict which lakes will have muddy tasting fish. Two lakes of similar depth, with the same type of algae bloom, may not produce similar tasting fish. Sometimes it’s just a matter of what micro-habitat a fish frequents when eating.

If you do keep a fish that you suspect is going to taste muddy, you can usually distinguish a slight muddy smell to it when you’re cleaning the fish. You can try soaking your fish in vinegar to help remove the muddy taste, but I’ve never really found vinegar all that successful. (Geosmin breaks down in acid.) There are all sorts of so-called remedies for muddy tasting fish but, like I say, I’ve never found one that works. Once I know the muddy taste is there I can always taste it, regardless of how it is prepared, how much spice might be used or what kind of sauce it is covered with.

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I have, however, been known to cook up the occasional trout for dinner when I’m up at the cabin.

I usually start with brown rice mixed with a little wild rice to give it that slightly nutty flavour, a bit of sliced oyster mushrooms fried up in butter with a dash of ginger and some chopped up kale that has been reduced in a wok with lemon oil. Place the trout (that has been poached first and then seared in a frying pan to give it a slight crust) on a bed of the rice, add to the plate some spring greens with a cranberry jalapeno dressing and you’ve got a simple to prepare, wonderful tasting meal.

When it comes right down to it, I’d have to say that the best way to get rid of the muddy taste in trout is to practice catch and release and simply return the fish back into the water from whence it came.


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