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“We Eat Them”

A question I often hear throughout the winter months during my ice fishing outings is, “What do you do with all the fish you catch?” My answer, “We eat them.” Don’t misunderstand, I don’t eat all the fish I catch, but I do prepare certain ones for the dinner table. Basically, I’m pretty much a “catch and release” fisherman, except when it comes to panfish. Crappies, perch, and bluegills are ideal when properly prepared for the dinner plate. They are also abundant and replace themselves quickly, so I don’t have a problem keeping some for meals. Even though I often catch more, I try to limit my take home fish to around 20 total — that’s all I want to clean on any given night.

Winter caught panfish are especially good because the meat remains fresh and firm in the cold winter temperatures. Mine are quickly cleaned and prepared for the freezer when I get back from a fishing trip.

If you are new to the business of keeping and preparing panfish, you should first learn to properly fillet a fish — being especially careful not to leave any bones in the fillet. I like to use my trusty filleting knife, but many of today’s ice fishermen have opted to use an electric knife to fillet their fish. Whichever method you choose, it’s best to become proficient with it — being careful to leave no bones and at the same time getting a maximum amount of meat. I preserve mine by putting 8-10 fillets in a resealable plastic bag filled with water that completely covers the fillets — they keep just fine for months at a time.

When it comes to preparing these great little fillets for the table, there are hosts of cooking methods available. I’ll admit I’m probably the last guy you want to hear from regarding cooking since I have trouble preparing a bowl of cornflakes, but I have managed to master a couple of fish recipes. One of my favorites was actually one I got from fellow ice fisherman, Bill Wilhellm, and if you like fish and seafood you may want to try it — I call it “Crabby Crappies”. While I call it “Crabby Crappies” any panfish fillet can be used.

Here it is: Place four or five panfish fillets next to each other in the bottom of a buttered pan or dish. I will actually create four such areas in the dish if planning a meal for two people (that leaves three for me and one for my wife). Next, mix mayonnaise or Miracle Whip in a bowl with a package of the imitation crab meat (you can use the real crab meat if so inclined) creating a “thick cement mix”. Add Old Bay seasoning, salt, and pepper to taste. Now add a layer of about three-quarters of an inch of the mix to the fillets and then cover that with an additional layer of panfish fillets. Sprinkle a little more Old Bay on and add a little chunk of butter. Cover the dish with a piece of foil and bake for about 10-15 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove the foil a couple of minutes before taking out of the oven. If you want to, you can sprinkle some kind of green stuff over the individual fish cakes to make them look even classier.

While I’ve detailed one of my favorite recipes here, my wife and I also like to eat the fillets fried and baked; I’m sure the lady of the house has any number of recipes that would also apply to the fish taken through the ice this winter.

If you want to explore more recipes, the Fish and Boat Commission has published an excellent book called the Pennsylvania Anglers’ Cookbook. The book covers smoking, pickling, canning, freezing and a bunch of fish recipes as well. Another great book is the late Sylvia Bashline’s book The Bounty of the Earth published by Winchester Press, 1421 South Sheridan, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 74114.

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