If you have been reading my blog for anytime, you know I am a huge fan of catch & release. In fact there are those who have accused me of being a catch & release fascist.
I do not care. Catch & release is an established part of sport fishing today, and an important part of fisheries management. Simply put, if you fish today you will be releasing at least some of the fish you catch if not voluntarily, by regulation. In a year’s fishing, I will release well over 95% of the fish I catch including all or almost all of the big fish. But that does not mean that I do not enjoy a meal of fresh fish as much as the next guy or gal!
Fish are a renewable resource and we should maintain a tradition of harvesting some of our catch. However, the days of filling the freezer should be over, and the best application of harvest occurs by selectively harvesting those species and sizes of fish that can withstand some harvest. When I make a decision to enjoy a meal of fresh fish, I target the most abundant species and sizes of fish. Panfish are often some of the most abundant, and best on the table, but even then my large panfish go back in the water. Likewise, larger predator fish can be excellent on the table, but if I choose to harvest some of those I will take the more abundant, and again often better eating, small- and medium-size fish as long as those can be legally harvested.
You also will hear me climb up on my “respect” soap-box from time to time. I believe much of ethical behavior in our outdoor pursuits, hunting, fishing and trapping simply comes down to a matter of respect: Respect for the fish and wildlife, respect for the land and water, respect for each other. I have a quote on the door of my office from Lee Wulff, legendary fly-fisherman, “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.” Now that quote certainly applies to my catch & release ethic, but I also believe it applies when I choose to harvest a fish. I believe that proper respect for that fish dictates that the decision to harvest not be taken lightly and when that decision is made the fish should still be handled with utmost respect!
The quality of any fish when it reaches the table will largely be determined by how it was handled before it gets to the kitchen. Fresh fish and fish that are kept fresh until they are prepared are WAY BETTER than fish that are hauled around on a stringer until they perish. Keeping fish alive as long as possible before they are cleaned and prepared is a great idea, but putting them on ice, especially during the summer, may be the best way to handle them. Ice ‘Em!
When it comes to catching and especially eating fish, it is natural for everyone to have their favorites. Some will prefer slightly different tastes and textures over others, but honestly I believe almost all fish can be very palatable and tasty if prepared right. Again, let me go overboard and suggest that it is a matter of respect, respect for the different species of fish and then preparing them in the best way for their different characteristics and flavors. If all you ever do is bread ‘em in flour and fry ‘em, you certainly will find that some species of fish just don’t taste very good when fixed in that manner.
Trout flesh is entirely different than the meat of other species of fish. As soon as you clean a trout you will realize that, you can see it. Trout have more oils and fats in their flesh. Now you certainly can throw a trout in a skillet and fry it, and over a campfire there may be nothing better, but I prefer to smoke mine. Now my philosophy for a lot of things is the “K.I.S.S. principle”–Keep It Simple, Stupid. When I choose to harvest a trout for smoking I simply field dress it. Then I will brine it overnight and throw it on the smoker. Do not ask me for my brine recipe, it ain’t written down. Get a bowl or some type of container large enough contain your trout, fill the container with water, leave enough room for the trout, and then add lots of brown sugar to the water. I add about as much brown sugar as I can dissolve. Then I add salt to the brine, crushed cloves of garlic, and lemon juice. How much of those ingredients I do not know–enough that it tastes right. After brining, I prefer cherry wood for smoking, but other fruit woods work just as well or you can substitute your favorite.
I do not have my own pickling or canning recipes, but those are other ways to fix certain species of fish. I have had pickled pike that was fantastic and canned carp makes a great sandwich spread. Yes, even Asian carp can be good if prepared right, If You Cannot Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em.
I will fry fish, but exactly how I prepare those fish depends on the species and its subtleties. In my opinion species like yellow perch and bluegill do not need to be over-powered by overly-spicy breading–K.I.S.S. A coating of crushed, dried bread crumbs or crushed Ritz crackers is really nice. Or I will dip my fillets in flour seasoned with some salt and cayenne pepper and then dip that in an egg wash and double coat them with panko bread crumbs. After those babies come hot and fresh out of the fish fryer, I can stand there and eat ‘em like tater chips–cannot get enough.
With other species of fish, species that might have a little more flavor to their flesh, you can add a variety of spices to your basic coating or whip up some type of batter. Experiment and see what you like best for different species. If you need some more ideas on different recipes, coatings and batters, here are a couple of useful cook books, Country Cookbook from NEBRASKAland Magazine and the Wild Game Cookbook also from NEBRASKAland.
Walleye are another species that have meat that is very firm and delicate and they do NOT need to be dressed up to be delicious. My favorite way of preparing some 15-18-inch walleyes or their close cousins, sauger, is an almondine recipe. Again do not ask me for the recipe, I copied it from some publication years ago, but have long since lost the instructions. I can tell you I coat one side of the fillet, not the skin side, the other side, with dried, crushed bread crumbs that have had a generous amount of almonds crushed with them. Then that is fried breaded-side down in a frying pan with melted butter just long enough to brown. After that those fillets are flipped over and laid un-breaded side down in a baking dish. I drizzle a mixture of olive oil and almond extract, enough almond extract mixed in with the olive oil that you can taste the almond, over the top of those fillets and then finish by baking them for a few minutes in an oven at about 350 degrees. You will know they are done when you can flake the meat apart, it will not take long. When they come out of the oven, I may sprinkle a few almond slices over the top and then dig in!
I do most of the cooking of fish and wild game in our house. We enjoy a variety of fish and game prepared in a variety of ways. Oftentimes when we enjoy some fish or game my family and I try to make it a memorable occasion, a special meal. We believe that is the best way to fully savor our outdoor experiences to their conclusion and show respect one last time to the fish and game we have harvested. I spent some time last night searching through photos to find one such occasion. Yes, you will take one look at the picture and say that it was a long time ago, it was, back in the days I was aspiring to be a chef (Ha), but you can see it was a memorable meal of chilled crayfish cocktails, fried frog legs, and walleye almondine complimented with a homemade salad and some rice–a Nebraska “seafood” feast. Now that’s living!