Lemon pesto trout

This recipe works best with larger, thicker rainbow trout. If using smaller and thinner trout, watch it closely and use a shorter cooking time to avoid overcooking. (Picture by Jerry Dilsaver)

May is a great time to enjoy some meals made of fish. Fish is great, fresh fish is better, but fish you caught yourself, earlier that day, are the best of all. This column often features recipes for dolphin, wahoo, flounder, catfish and such, but not too often about our mountain trout. Well, this recipe is for rainbow trout. I expect it would also be good for brown trout, but I haven’t caught any of the size I like to use for this recipe. If anyone tries this with a big brown, I think it will be excellent and I’d like to know.

May is a good time to catch mountain trout in South Carolina and a great time to catch them in North Carolina. South Carolina doesn’t have any trout season closures during the winter, but relies on the weather to lessen pressure from fishermen. North Carolina has special mountain trout regulations and March closures on most hatchery supported waters. While these waters are closed, North Carolina Wildlife staff is stocking them. And when the season reopens in April, anglers have lots of trout to be caught. Many sportsmen are hunting turkeys during April, so it’s still easy to catch some fresh trout for dinner in May.

We do this recipe in the oven, so the heat can be regulated closely, but plan to try it in a campfire this year. Cooking fresh fish in the coals of a crackling fire is special, and May evenings are just cool enough the fire feels good. It’s also special to sit around a campfire and telling tales of the day, past camping/fishing trips and more. Eating fresh rainbow trout prepared this way makes the meal and evening really special.

Lemon pesto trout

Donna Mooneyhan developed this recipe as a quick and easy way to cook fresh trout. I scale the fish and remove the internals, leaving the head and tail attached, at least on larger, thicker trout.

The first time using this recipe, we hadn’t planned to keep any fish that afternoon, but caught a large rainbow that we knew wouldn’t survive. I waded out to a rock in the stream and cleaned the fish with my pocket knife. Then we took it up the bank and across a field to the kitchen. That’s as fresh as fish gets.

We made due with what was on hand, which included olive oil, garlic powder, basil pesto, some lemons, salt and pepper and a few other spices. The initial result tasted good enough that it hasn’t been tweaked much.

One change is we now use garlic-flavored olive oil instead of olive oil and garlic powder. This makes it even simpler. Also, we now use avocado oil on the outside, which keeps the fish moist and offers a slightly different taste. We sometimes add onion slices in the body cavity.

If you’re cooking this with smaller trout, or the edges start to overly brown, make a tent of aluminum foil and place it over the pan. This will slow the browning.

When it’s time to serve the fish, a spatula can run along the backbone to serve the bottom half. This is for rainbow trout, which have a good number of small bones. It’s not a fillet, so pay attention to bones. Most will pull off with the skin, but a few will remain. This inconvenience is forgotten pretty quickly, thanks to the flavor.


1 or 2 large rainbow trout

Garlic-flavored olive oil (regular, not extra virgin). Olive oil and garlic powder is a good substitute if garlic-flavored olive oil is difficult to find

Avocado oil (olive oil will work)

Basil pesto

1 or 2 lemons

Salt and pepper to taste.

Optional: Small sweet onion


Clean the fish by scaling and opening its body cavity to remove the internals. Leave the head and tail attached.

Brush inside the body cavity with garlic flavored olive oil.

Add a heaping teaspoon of basil pesto inside the body cavity and spread throughout the cavity.

If you are going to use onions, this is the time to add some inside the body cavity.

Place several lemon slices in the body cavity.

Preheat oven to 450.

Score the top side of the fish with 3-4 shallow cuts through the skin.

Brush avocado oil liberally on the top side skin. Olive oil is a reasonable substitute if you don’t have avocado oil.

Season the top side with salt and pepper (to personal taste). My preference is a fairly liberal dusting of pepper and minimal salt.

Add several lemon slices on the top side skin.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, paying attention not to dry the fish out.

Remove from oven and serve while still hot.

This serves well with roasted or steamed vegetables. I always enjoy salads, and this meal can be started with a green salad or lettuce wedge.  A slice of one of the many varieties of cream pies tops the meal off well.


About Jerry Dilsaver 1170 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.

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