Sports
For fish eaters only
By Luke Clayton
Jul 3, 2019
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I often fill this space with tips from pro fishermen on catching fish, or possibly giving an account of a recent fishing trip. But this week, let’s concentrate on how to enjoy them once they are fried, broiled or blackened. Catch and release is a great practice but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with keeping a ‘mess’ of fish for the dinner table.

Regular readers will recall my mentions of my early days growing up in rural Red River County. I was raised on a chicken farm and about every 2 months, after the 14,000 broiler chickens went to market, my dad declared a three-day holiday and we packed up the old ’50 model International truck with camping and fishing gear and headed across the Red River to fish a little lake in southeastern Oklahoma for catfish. We did a little ‘pole’ fishing with cane poles but the big focus was on trotlines set along a big stump field adjacent the far side of the lake.

There were no state-of-the art catfish boats back in those days; we fished from a 12 foot homemade wooden boat my uncle built from marine plywood.  I would begin fishing in our farm pond the day before the trip for perch which we used to bait the trotline. We would usually leave the farm midafternoon on a Friday with the intent to reach the little lake in time to get the "lines" set out and baited in time to catch a "mess" of channel catfish for the first evening’s meal. I honestly can’t remember not succeeding in catching plenty of catfish, that lake was chock full of catfish weighing between 1.5 and 5 pounds.

About sunset that first evening, the Coleman camp stove would have a big cast iron skillet atop filled with lard and catfish fillets seasoned with salt and pepper, dusted with yellow cornmeal would soon be sizzling. In those early years, a successful fishing trip always resulted in a big fish fry.  I still love fishing for sport but the ensuing fish fry is the icing on the cake.

Catch and release is a wonderful conservation tool for certain species but our lakes are full of catfish, crappie, white bass and stripers that provide excellent table fare. For many of us, a big fish fry is a time honored event that is the perfect ending to a great time on the water.

On a recent weekend, I defrosted a gallon freezer bag filled with flounder fillets given me by my good friend Trey Schmidt, who gigs flounder at night in the Galveston bays using his flounder boat rigged with more lights than Reunion tower in downtown Dallas. It’s been months since the morning I watched Trey fillet and bag those freshly gigged flounder while we were vacationing in Galveston.

I promptly placed the fillets in freezer bags with water and placed them in the freezer; there they have remained until this past weekend. I can honestly say I’ve never eaten better fried fish and that’s saying something especially when the fillets spent months in the freezer. When it comes to my favorite eating species, it’s a tie between flounder, catfish, striper, walleye, crappie and small northern pike but when filleted properly to remove the ‘red meat’, white bass are also at the top of my list. Did I mention red snapper and speckled trout? The truth is, all above mentioned fish species are on my hit list when it’s time for a fish fry!

Each June, a group of friends and I travel up to northern Saskatchewan to fish a remote fly-in lake for northern pike, walleye and lake trout. Iskwatikan (is-quat-I-can) Lake Lodge is owned by my friend Bryce Lyddell. Fishing has always been excellent and we eat very fresh fish every day for the 5 days we spend in this fisherman’s paradise.

We have tried just about every conceivable method of cooking fish, but, hands down, the 2 favorite recipes are fried and a variation of blackened fish. Rather than blackening the fish in a dry white hot skillet, we add a bit of unsalted butter, reduce the heat a bit and cook the fish with blackening seasoning. The resulting fillets are very favorable and moist. A few years ago, while fishing at another lodge, our Chippewa guide prepared walleye ‘Indian style’, cooked on a green stick stuck in the ground adjacent the campfire. I can truly say the fish was good but lacked in seasoning. The guide pointed out that on wilderness trips, his people didn’t always have the luxury of seasonings or cooking oil.

I’m pretty sure if I asked everyone I’ve enjoyed fish dinners with through the years which method of fish they preferred, fried would be the favorite.  For a fish lover, there is just something special about biting into a crunchy fish fillet dipped in a bit of catsup, served with pork n beans, white bread and fried onions. Some fresh green onions on the side is always a bonus! 

Frying fish is certainly not rocket science but there is a right and wrong way to do it. Getting the grease sizzling hot is key.

Cooking oil should be heated to at least 350 degrees but I prefer getting it a bit hotter, up to 375 degrees before dropping the first fillet in. A few chilled fillets will drop the temperature a few degrees and having the oil a bit hotter seems to work best for me. My dad used to drop a kitchen match into the oil and when it ignited, it was time to start cooking. A thermometer is a much easier way to determine the correct heat, but I must admit, I still fry fish ‘old school’ by dropping in a little bit of fish as a test and if it sizzles, it’s time to begin frying. Some folks like their fried fish ‘soft fried’ to the point where it is done but not crunchy. I want mine crunchy and adhere to what I call the "one minute rule." When I see that the fish is obviously thoroughly done and floating to the top, I give it one more minute to allow the fillets to become crunchy.

A fish fry is a good way to put those frozen fillets to good use but it won’t be long for a shore fish fry of freshly caught fish. I can hardly wait!

Listen to “Outdoors with Luke Clayton and Friends” on radio stations from Nebraska to Texas weekends on anytime online at www.catfishradio.org