Eating Freshwater Fish

Unless your grocery store is in a coastal area, finding truly fresh fish is pure fantasy. A visit to the seafood department reveals that most of the catch came from a far-flung continent. Even that “wild caught” mahi fillet spent days on a ship before reaching the counter. Your appetite can’t compete with the price, so you move on.

Here is a better idea. Many shoppers are choosing locally-grown products and why not? Knowing where food came from, how it was made and by whom are worth the extra price. Another added benefit is freshness and flavor—perishable farm-to-table foods just taste better.

Now, back to that fantasy about finding fresh fish. You can make it a reality while satisfying your craving for eating locally. Nothing says that like fish you caught from a lake near home.

Bass and trout aside, the taking of specific fish from waterbodies that can tolerate harvest is not a sin against the conservation-minded virtues of catch and release. In fact, some species are deliberately stocked to be caught—and eaten—by recreational freshwater anglers. Even so, catching them still takes some skill.

What is more, the steep price-per-pound for that Indonesian-caught mahi cannot hold up to the taste of fresh-caught crappie or walleye. And those tasty—and sporting—gamefish aren’t the only fish worth your time and effort. There are many other unpressured species that are eager to bite your bait. Some can be caught from most any boat—and even from a boat dock or the shoreline.

Also read our picks for some of the best freshwater game fish that are likely to be swimming in your lake, along with tips on how to catch them.

Before you rig up, check your state’s fishing regulations for required licenses, and for any legal size and creel limits where you plan to fish. It’s one thing to catch enough for a family backyard fish fry. But catching enough to feed the entire block might be illegal.

Are you ready to go lake-to-table and eat locally caught fish? Here are some ideas on what to do with your catch.

Ice ‘em down

Food prep begins when the catch is unhooked. Regardless of the season, getting the fish on ice immediately is a must. For obvious reasons, keep other food and drink in a separate cooler. Fill the fish cooler about half-full of ice, then add some water as you start catching fish to keep. The slushy mix is even colder than ice, and your catch will be safely preserved until you return home.  

Fillet knife

Personal flotation devices (PFDs) are more kid friendly than ever and designed specifically for all-day comfort, whether fishing, swimming or doing watersports. Choose a bright color, especially for younger children, that includes these three basic design elements—a crotch strap to prevent the child from slipping out of the device; self-righting capability to keep the wearer face up in the water; and head flotation to keep the head above the water. 

Fillet tip

Fillet-worthy species include walleye, yellow perch, large crappie and any other elongated fish. Make a one-cut fillet by making an angled cut from the top of the belly to just past the pectoral fin. Then, turn the knife handle and run it along the spine of the fish. The blade simultaneously penetrates the belly and the dorsal, and the fillet comes off as one piece. Bluegill are best prepared by removing the head, entrails and scales for pan frying whole or in a deep fryer. Filleted or gutted, rinse well with cold water to eliminate any contaminants.


Catfish tip

Long ago, your grandpa likely nailed a catfish to a board, made a few cuts to loosen the skin, grabbed a pair of pliers and commenced pulling off the skin. Those days are long gone. Here’s an easy three-step process for fileting a catfish.

First, you’ll need a large cutting board, a pair of waterproof gloves and a sharp filet knife. For the first step, place the fish on its side and line up the knife blade from the dorsal to the pelvic fins. Cut down at an angle through the rib cage until you feel the vertebrae. Flip the knife and cut down the spine over the length of the fish, stopping just before reaching the tail. For the final step, flip the fillet over with the knife and slide it along the edge of the skin, from the tail to the front. Cut out the small section of rib cage. That’s it!


Don’t burn it

A benefit of keeping your catch is it can be stored in the freezer for later. You must take precautions to prevent freezer burn, which dries out the flesh by direct exposure to cold air. Eliminate it by using a kitchen vacuum sealer, and storing meal-sized portions in sealed bags. Do your best to eliminate air pockets if using zip-up freezer bags. Freezing fillets in water keeps them fresh, but the flesh can turn mushy during the process. As you plan the menu, remove the frozen packages and allow to thaw overnight in the refrigerator.


Grill, bake or fry it?

While ocean fish live up to their “fishy” descriptor, that salty, briny taste is avoided with freshwater fish. What makes the difference for freshwater fish is cooking method. Some are most tasty when grilled, while others can be fancied up for the oven. And who doesn’t like a good old-fashioned backyard fish fry? Some fish are better for the deep fryer, while others are tastier when pan fried in a skillet. Here are some examples by species.

Rainbow trout – Before gasping at the thought of keeping a trout in the name of catch-and-release, there are many states where stocking programs are meant for catch and cook. Trout are delicious when baked in a foil-wrapped packet, which seals in the juices. Take a fillet, skin left on, and sprinkle lightly with olive oil. Add a sliced lemon, sprigs of fresh parsley and dill and seal the foil. Bake at 400 degrees for about 10-15 minutes.

Walleye – If you have never been treated to a shore lunch of freshly caught walleye, then you should put this on your culinary bucket list. The typical method involves using a dry batter to coat the fillets, then dropping them into a large skillet with oil heated over an open fire. At home, you can lightly dredge the fillets in flour, shake off the excess, and cook in a large cast iron skillet. Add a couple tablespoons of canola oil, a tablespoon of butter and cook over medium high heat.

Panfish –  Bluegill and crappie are the most popular candidates for frying and are best cooked outdoors in a deep fryer. Make a wash using a small bowl filled with milk and one beaten egg. Dip the fillets in the wash, then add to a resealable bag with a cup or so of dry mix. Remove the fillets, shake off the excess and fry until golden brown. This recipe also works for French fries or vegetables.

Uncle Bucks Fish Batter Mix

Salmon – The nutrient-rich pink skin is a delicacy when charcoal grilled, and it doesn’t take much effort. Here’s a prep tip for salmon and most any other elongated fish you intend to grill—leave the skin on! Doing so prevents the filet from falling apart. Add a pat of butter, drizzle olive oil and cook skin side down. You can add fresh herbs of your choice, along with salt and pepper to taste.

So, what are you waiting for? Now is the time to eat local. Make the catch of the day fish caught from your favorite lake. 



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