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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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07.23.08

My Bluegill Heaven

Food Memoir, Recipes


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Despite all the nutritional and gourmet conveniences of the modern world, there remain among us stalwart hunter-gatherers. Folks who pride themselves on the hunt, the catch. People who have honed the quiet skill and infinite knee-cramping patience needed to take down a deer, or the botanist’s eye to separate “delicious edible mushroom” from “poison that will kill you before you get to dessert.” I respect, admire, and have lived among these people for many years. But I’m really not one of them. And yet, occasionally, I find myself right there in the middle of it all. The primordial struggle of human against hunger. An individual against the rest of the natural world. Man versus…bluegill.

Well, I guess you can’t really expect to go from zero to slaying elk along the tree line with nothing more than a carved stone knife, right? Fishing is one of the more genteel forms of the struggle against nature, second only to perhaps a Victorian style fox hunt (recently banned in the UK). And is not, in any case, an activity I’d undertaken in years. After some unfortunate experiences being forgotten on a island in Ontario by a fly-and-fish operation, catching myself in the back of the head with a heavy, surface-floating lure with all too many hooks and barbs, I was ready to hang up my rod for good. Until my dad, musing aloud about how to spend his afternoon during a recent family reunion, said he thought he’d go out fishing. And I decided to join him.

This proved much less traumatizing than some of my previous piscine adventures. In fact, fishing a farm pond stocked with bluegills who think anything that hits the water is fish food is almost literally like shooting fish in a barrel. Insert lure, remove fish. Repeat. Nothing feels better than actually catching fish when you’re fishing. And it was refreshing to see how much I remembered of the process — flipping open the bale, pinching the line, the side-forwards thrust of the arm (NOT snapping the rod back over the shoulder, if you value the nape of your neck), the jig and drop to reel back the lure. The pond made dozy sopping sounds against the sides of the boat, and the blaze of the sun was hot on my legs and wrists. The appeal of this sport was not, for perhaps the first time, lost on me.

There’s something comforting in the ability to provide without assistance. Especially it seemed, as we floated high on a Missouri pond swelled by the early summer deluge of rain, not six miles from still disastrously flooded fields, shimmering like a new and stagnant lake miles from the banks of the Mississippi. The small town of Louisiana, just across the river from Illinois and about 40 minutes south of Mark Twain’s hometown, was still recovering in its low parts. Commerce and transportation seemed at least to have resumed normally just weeks after the governor had declared the town in an emergency state from a boat floating through downtown. Walmart and Kroger were open for groceries, and the bakery and local cafe/winery were open and serving breakfast. “Eagle’s claw” sticky donuts, and a sausage gravy and biscuit skillet remained blessedly unaffected by the Mississippi, though the river may still have been the source of our server’s apparent exhaustion and surliness.

But the sharp fetid miasma of the river mud and debris, which coated downtown buildings up to four feet, still hung heavy and evil-smelling in the downtown air. A horrible contrast to the sweet yeasty smell of mouldering hay that usually pervades the hills around the river. The roadsides would usually be flanked by thick clumps of sumac and ferns, velvety rolling fields of wheat and frothy crimson sorghum, and rows of corn that would normally be towering overhead. But the rains have changed things here too. This year, the corn is only toddler-sized, topping out at two or three feet, even in places where the swollen river water couldn’t reach.

My early July trips to Missouri usually hinge on a few unalterable variables: family, fireworks, lots of beer, and plenty of down home barbeque. This year, while brisket, mayo-based salads and freshly pickled sweet cucumbers were ever-present, there was extra solace in a few hours on a the farm’s pond proving that there are ways to survive, and eat well, even in the wake of a natural disaster. Until of course, we hauled in our catch of 20 fish and tried to actually turn them into food.

Bluegills are not generally the best fish for eating. They’re relatively small, and don’t have much meat on them even in the larger range. The delicate surgery involved in removing a fillet from one of these flat little sunfish is a lot of effort for relatively little return — especially when you’re working with sub-par knives on a plank of what seems to be a discarded Ikea bookshelf component, balanced over a cooler in the sloping side-yard in the blistering sun.

My dad let me beg off fish surgery, on the condition that I take on the role of designated beer and ice runner. It took a few fish to settle on the right knife (not too long, not too thick), and another few fish to figure out what filleting technique was most effective — starting as one would in traditional filleting, just behind the side fin and working toward the tail, or starting by the tail and working forward. Cutting deep enough to get all the way through the muscle, but not too far that the fillet on the other side of the backbone would be compromised. Working around the tough rib bones, and scraping away the now-leathery skin. And dealing all the while with the slime of fish and scales and guts, and the prickly dorsal fins and tails. By the time the last fish was done, his thumb looked like a pin cushion from holding the fish steady.

In the kitchen, revived by the cooling ceiling fan, we did a little more trimming to remove any remaining skin, and the thick plates of rib bones from each fillet. In a bowl of ice chips, the now even-smaller pieces of fish looked like rustic sushi, just as firm and cold as sashimi, the translucent pearl pink of yellowtail. After working through a stringer of fish three feet long and weighing well over 15 pounds, we only had enough tiny morsels to fill a single soup bowl. Finally, done with the transition from animal to ingredient, we swapped out the ice chips for salt water and let the fish sit for another hour while we took a much-deserved warriors’ reprieve (i.e. Miller High Life break in the shade) before frying them up.

The final product wasn’t exactly a plate of fish and chips style deep-fried fillets. It wasn’t fancy. It was kind of puny, actually. But it was good. Even for just a bite, a single mouthful of the freshest fish there is, melting a little on your tongue with the hot salt and oil, all those hours and that terrible sunburn were worth it. Maybe next year we’ll get an earlier start and really contribute to the meal.

Recipe: Fish Chips

Preparation time: 4-5 hours
Serving size: 1 bite per person, 30 people

Ingredients:

30-40 tiny bluegill fillets, cleaned and brined for at least one hour
Italian style bread crumbs
Spice mixes, assorted
Vegetable oil, for frying

Remove fish from brine bath, pat dry. Assemble breading mix in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, just enough to fully coat fish — breadcrumbs, and whatever spices are sitting around (garlic salt, Italian herbs mix, lemon pepper, etc.) to taste. Add fish to bag, shake until well coated. Heat oil in a cast iron skillet until a drop of water will skitter across the surface, and add fish, one fillet at a time. Cook 6-8 minutes, until firm and flaky — just golden and the edges are curling. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve while still hot, with beer, don’t let your guests get grabby, there’s enough for everyone to get a bite.

5 Comments on "My Bluegill Heaven"

Cynthia

Nice story. It really takes me back. I can remember summer camp in Wisconsin (near Eagle River) and loving to fish. Blue gill was the first fish I ever caught, and it is the fish on which I learned my first lessons of cleaning and preparing fish. It was also the first fish I actually liked — no doubt as much because I’d caught it as because it was so fresh. But it did seem sublime, even to a youngster.



Barry Strum

Your piece gives restored meaning to the phrase “will work for food”



Anonymous

I grew up just across the Mississipi from Missouri in IL. Bluegill were my first fish to clean. Still fun to catch.



rob

Though it’s a lot more work, if you scale them, gut them and fry them whole you get more meat out of the deal.

Bluegills are the only kind of fish I fly fish for cause they are very dependable.



Jeff

Fishing with your dad and catching enough to eat while enjoying an ice cold Miller….you my friend are living the High Life!

I love bluegill…however when I was a kid we would scale them, cut the head off, and gut them and then fry them. You can then sort of peel the meat off the bone. Filleting them is great because you can eliminate all of the bones, but this way you get a little more meat.

There are a couple of restaurants here in the Milwaukee area that do a bluegill fish fry too.



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