Recipe Column: A fishing opener tradition
Some of the most steadfast memories I have ingrained in my brain are of opening fishing weekend. In fact, I have one memory hanging on my living room wall. It’s a mount of two crappies on a piece of driftwood. I caught these fish on an opening weekend a few years back, even though I know the preferred species is the walleye.
But to me, walleyes are not number one. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good walleye fish fry, but in my opinion, the most succulent fish of all is the crappie. I have always had an affinity for this species. I think that’s because it’s the first fish I ever caught in my life, and my Grandpa Dahlman was sitting right next to me in his boat when I reeled in it. He was the one that taught me the in and outs of this sport. We shared a passion, an unbreakable bond that still fires me up today.
Those long ago opening mornings were special. Grandpa had an Airstream camper, and we both would wake up before dawn on some lakeside bank. He would make coffee and pack us a lunch, and then we would load our gear and head for the boat. Sometimes the air was cool and you could see your breath, and other years the dew was thick, and the lake was shrouded in mist. It didn’t matter to us, rain or shine, hot or cold, we fished.
And so the tradition has continued, even though Grandpa has been gone for quite some time. The opening day rituals instilled in me as a kid do not grow faint. In preparation for the big day, I still dump all the contents of my tackle box on a workbench to sort or throw. Every year I make it a point to buy something new to add to my box, too. Sometimes it’s new bobbers, or a new lure and, every few years, a new pole. And that’s what I had just purchased when I was requested to do some impromptu research on a neighbor’s 7-acre lake.
This little body of water was a favorite, especially for kids, because it was overloaded with thousands of 3-to 4-inch bluegills. It was hard to get any big ones in this lake because the menagerie of little ones was so profuse, but it was a wonder observing them simply because of their overwhelming numbers.
And then one hot summer, a mighty rain came, and according to the experts this precipitation messed up the oxygen levels and it seemed as if every fish in the pond died. Eagles by the dozen would hang out in the pine trees surrounding the lake, and at every little hunger twinge they would dive in and get an easy meal. Loons were numerous, and otters waddled the banks like fat Vegas big shots. And the smell-indescribable.
But Mother Nature has a way of cleaning these things up, and the next spring the lake opened after a winter’s freeze sparkling and odorless. But there were no fish. No little minnows so brass they nibbled fingers. It seemed barren.
And then my non-fishing friends who live on this lake actually begged me to fish it to see if anything would bite. I was skeptical, but nonetheless curious and willing to help them out. After all, a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work right?
So opening morning a few years back I decided to start my day out on this little body of water. And as I watched the bait guy ladle minnows into my bucket, I thought, “I’ll give this dead sea one hour and then I’m gone.”
Dawn was just breaking when I clomped onto the pier with the smell of rain heavy in the air. I baited my hook and threw out the first cast of the season with my new pole. Boom! The bobber disappeared. I reeled in a 16-inch crappie. I repeated the process. This time there was a slight trembling of the bobber before it went under decisively. Another slab. This went on until I had a couple of meals. I was in heaven. The only thing missing was Grandpa.
Once I got my catch home and was preparing them for the freezer, and the frying pan, I stopped and took a closer look at these beauties. I reserved two of the prettiest ones for a mount, and now every day I peer up at them hanging on my wall. They bring back good memories.
While many anglers like to filet their fish, I like to clean them the old fashioned way, the way Grandpa showed me long ago; scaling the bodies and frying them whole. I have found the right batter compliments these delicacies perfectly, and I even like to make my own tartar sauce. There’s no finer dining.
So this year, once again, I’ll be out on the water on opening day. I’ve got a place in mind I want to try, and a row boat that will serve me well. And when I reel in that first keeper, I know Grandpa will be watching.
Happy opening weekend, and good luck fishing!
Grandpa’s Fish Batter
1 cup flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. paprika
1/4 cup cooking oil
1 cup beer
Oil for frying
Place all the above ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir until smooth. The mixture will be a little thin, but you want it to stick to the fillets so you may have to add more flour or beer to get it just right. Spread the filets or whole fish on a paper towel and dry really well. When the fillets are dry salt them lightly and place in the batter. Heat about 1/4 of an inch of oil (in a cast iron skillet if you have one) and cook the fish until golden brown.
Homemade Dill Tartar Sauce
1 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbs. dill relish
1 tsp. dry dill weed 1 tsp. sugar
1 dash pepper
1 squirt lime juice
Mix all ingredients and serve with fish.
Associate editor Mary Ann Doyle is available at [email protected].