As we pulled off a Wisconsin county road up to Star Prairie Trout Farm, my husband gazed at the closely cropped green lawn and picturesque ponds.
"This is going to be like fishing in a miniature golf course," he said.
If you want your fishing in the wild, don't bother with Star Prairie. But if you want fish guaranteed to jump onto your children's hooks and an idyllic picnic spot for eating fresh grilled trout, the farm is well worth the hour drive from the Twin Cities.
Prairie Star is one of several dozen trout farms in Wisconsin and among a handful that allow visitors to fish on site without a license.
When we arrived with our three children, another group was fanned out along the edge of the main pond. A Minneapolis couple had brought a dozen kids for their 9-year-old son's birthday party.
"There's only one rule," said one of the attendants, Kevin Harms, as he handed us poles, bait and a 5-gallon bucket. "No catch and release."
We stationed ourselves on the other side of the pond, which was about the size of a backyard swimming pool. A few other narrow ponds twisted through the grass, crossed by wood plank bridges. Adirondack chairs and picnic tables dotted the grounds.
After selecting our fishing poles, I overcame my gag reflex to pierce live worms onto my kids' hooks and we cast our lines into the shallow water. We could see our hooks dangling among hundreds of rainbow trout, from 6 inches long to more than a foot, brownish with black spots
Within a minute, my 6-year-old daughter was squealing.
"I have a fish. I have a fish!" I helped reel her trout onto the lawn, where it flopped and picked up bits of mown grass on its silvery flanks.
Then my 9-year-old son had a bite.
Catching fish was proving to be as easy as that old-fashioned fishing pond carnival game, where kids toss a line over a curtain and someone ties on a prize.
Harms wandered over to see if we needed help. He had
"It's kind of cheating," he said of farm pond fishing. "But it's great for kids, because there is a lot of action."
My 9-year-old caught a second fish. Then, the 12-year-old landed a fish. My husband caught a fish. The 6-year-old caught another. My husband could barely remove the hooks fast enough.
The fish squirmed in my hand, as slippery as peeled mangos. Harms taught us how to stick our index finger through the fish gill right into its mouth so we could hold it more easily.
There has been a trout farm on this site since 1856, thanks to a spring that bubbles out of a nearby hill.
Four of the ponds are open to the public for fishing at a price. The rest stock trout for Twin Cities farmers' markets and restaurants, including Erte and Lucia's, both in Minneapolis. Coastal Seafoods also carries Star Prairie trout, and according to Coastal salesman Nate Owens, it has a loyal following.
The cool water ensures that the trout grow slowly with firm flesh, reaching 12 inches in about two years. The week before we were there, Star Prairie had processed 1,400 pounds of fish for market, a fraction of the
The staff offers free informal tours of the commercial operation, which brings in the bulk of its revenue. I would have liked to see where the eggs are hatched and where the fry swim before being released into ponds with bigger fish, but we didn't have enough time.
Instead, we spent our final hour eating grilled fish. You can have your fish cleaned ($2) and/or filleted ($3) on site. Having never cleaned a fish, this was the route I chose. We carried our pail of fish up to a shack where a couple of guys were standing at a sink lopping off fish heads.
Only my 9-year-old stayed to watch as Harms stabbed a knife into one of the fish and sliced it open from back to front. He flipped its guts into the trash and then used the back of his thumbnail to scoop out a thick red-brown blood line. He quickly sliced out the spine and ribs, making it look easy.
"The secret is a sharp knife," he said. Actually, I think the secret is to do it a hundred times.
EATING FRESH FISH
Harms rolled a Weber grill (you can bring your own or rent one including charcoal for $6.50) up to our picnic table. I spread the fish on pieces of tinfoil, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, added thin slices of lemon, closed the fish, sealed the tin foil and then tossed the packets over hot coals.
While we prepared our dinner, my older son read a comic book in an Adirondack chair and the 6-year-old played with two girls who had come with their family for a picnic.
My husband let the fish cook about five minutes a side. We devoured them with pasta salad and sourdough bread as the sun sank and shadows of the trees alongside the Apple River started to creep across the lawn.
My 6-year-old likes fish and ate with gusto.
"Does it taste like salmon?" I asked.
"Better!" she said.
The 9-year-old doesn't like fish at home, so I was surprised to see him go for a third helping.
"It's just fun to eat something you caught," he said, with a shrug.
The experience whetted his appetite for a real fishing trip. He thought pond fishing was too easy.
"If you come here, there is pretty much no way you can't catch a fish," he said. "You just put your hook in the water."
"There is no fun if you just toss it in, and, 'Oh!' you caught a fish. And then 'Oh!' you caught another one. And 'Oh' you got another."
My husband enjoyed himself but also thought pond fishing lacked mystery and challenge. However, my oldest and youngest kids were perfectly satisfied.
If we were to do it again, I'd impose a limit of one or two fish per kid. We caught eight fish that weighed nearly seven pounds and our bill came to $75, including the bait, grill and fillet service. It was pricier than I had anticipated, but we got a fun afternoon and three meals out of our catch. I wouldn't have paid much less if we'd bought the fish from Coastal Seafood, which sells it for $10.99 per pound.
We ended up grilling about a third on site and brought the rest home in our cooler. We gave a big fish to grandma and grilled another fish feast the following night.
It was tasty a second time around, served with wild rice. But it didn't compare to eating trout in the sunshine, a few feet from the water where we caught it.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Star Prairie Trout Farm
Where: 400 Hill Ave., Star Prairie, Wis.
Information: 715-248-3633 or 888-545-6808, starprairietrout.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in May and September; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday in June through August; closed Mondays; open by appointment October through April
Cost: Free admission; $6 per pound for each fish caught ($8 per pound for "trophy" fish over 2 pounds.); fish cleaned for $2, filleted for $3; charcoal and grill $6.50; worm bait $3
Target audience: Impatient fishermen and picnickers
Crowd pleaser: Eating the fish you catch
Avoid: Overfishing. It's easy to rack up a big bill. Impose fishing limits like one or two fish per kid.
Tip: Bring a picnic to go with your trout dinner: a salad, crusty loaf of bread, some homemade brownies and drinks. Salt and pepper -- and possibly some fresh herbed butter -- are all you need for your fish.
Good to know: No fishing license is required.
Special event: wisconsinaquaculture.com lists other fish farms that allow on-site fishing