Fishing For Some Answers

How should a backcountry trout fisher deal with trout entrails and remains of cooked trout?

Our Education Staff answers:

As for proper disposal of fish remains (uncooked), we’d first advise checking with the local land manager to see what they require and/or suggest. Otherwise, here are some recommendations:

Disposing of fish entrails: Special care needs to be taken when dealing with the fish entrails. Many anglers follow the tradition of scattering entrails in the woods or out on rocks for wildlife, but this practice is no longer recommended. Today, the best disposal methods are determined by a number of factors including how long you will be out fishing, whether bears live in the area, if whirling disease is a concern, and what the local regulations dictate.

When entrails are tossed into the woods or on the shore, they attract wildlife. Animals and birds have been observed following both hunters and anglers in hopes of obtaining a free lunch of guts. These animals lose their natural wariness of people and can become a nuisance or worse. Entrails that are not eaten by wildlife will rot and smell and make the area undesirable for those who visit after you, so please do not leave fish guts dangling in the bushes or sitting out on a rock.

The best possible way to dispose of fish entrails—as with any kind of waste—is to pack them out. Consider using doubled zip-lock bags or some form of bear-proof container for this purpose. When waste is packed out, its impact on the aquatic environment is zero, however, for extended backcountry trips or when bears are a major concern, packing fish entrails out may not be feasible.

If you can’t pack out your fish entrails, you have a number of other options such as burial, deep water deposition or moving water deposition. Check with local land managers to find out what they recommend. In some states, there are laws that determine how you should dispose of fish entrails, in others, there are just guidelines. Either way, the land managers will be able to help you.

Water deposition—either in water greater than 10 feet deep or in large rivers and streams—is an acceptable technique in some areas where bears are a concern such as Alaska. However, in many of the West’s trout waters, this practice is unacceptable because of the incidence of whirling disease. Whirling disease, which affects trout and other salmonids (trout and salmon family), can be spread by infected entrails. So in areas where the disease is a concern, do not throw fish guts into the water. Water disposal is also illegal in some states such as Minnesota.

Burning is not recommended because it requires a big, hot fire to effectively consume the entrails and such a fire may have undesirable side effects.

If you are worried about whirling disease and you can’t pack the fish entrails out, bury them in a cat hole. Cat holes should be at least 200 feet from camps and water and at least 6 to 8 inches deep. Wildlife may dig up the entrails, but burial does prevent the spread of whirling disease and minimizes the impact of smell on other visitors.

Whirling disease: This condition affects the central nervous system of trout, especially rainbow and cutthroat, causing the infected fish to slowly lose its sense of direction and begin swimming in circles. This odd behavior accounts for the name of the disease. Whirling disease is spread through spores released by an infected salmonid fish (the disease does not affect humans or non-salmonid fish). It has caused severe declines in certain western trout populations.

Whirling disease spores are waterborne, so anglers should wash and, if possible, disinfect any equipment that has been in contact with water where salmonids live to help prevent the spread of the disease. This includes boots, waders, float tubes, lines, and tackle.

Fish entrails removed from fish caught in infected areas should either be packed out or buried deeply in a cathole. For more information on Whirling Disease, please visit http://www.whirling-disease.org/

As for properly disposing of fish waste leftover from cooking, we’d strongly recommend pack it all out. We wouldn’t recommend burying or leaving out for scavengers. As a last resort, on a long trip where packing out is not a realistic option, we might – ONLY IN BEAR COUNTRY – recommend burning the remains. However, there are many factors to consider regarding the use of fire to dispose of waste – are fires legal, are the current conditions conducive to having a safe and responsible fire, is there an adequate source of firewood, etc. Checking with local land managers and putting some thought into the best disposal options will ensure a safe and eco-friendly outing.