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Panfish - Tasty Gems
by George Hedgepeth
I would guess that most people in the Great Lakes region have caught a fish at some point in their lives. Most likely, that first fish was a yellow perch or one of the many varieties of sunfish. Generations of kids have been introduced to angling by these abundant, scrappy, and easy to catch fish. On top of these many virtues, they also happen to be delicious, high quality food.
In fact, Yellow perch (Perca Flavascens), Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus), and Crappie (Pomoxis annularis) are commonly ranked as some of the very best freshwater fish for the table. Even people who "don't eat fish" often find a plate of fresh panfish hard to resist; they are mild, sweet, and flakey. Restaurants all over Michigan's miles of shoreline feature perch dinners, and locals and tourists alike line up to eat them. In general, panfish are served deep fried in roadhouses, taverns, and restaurants.
Crunchy, flakey fried filets are certainly tasty, but there are many other ways to eat these fish. They can be prepared to be healthier, but just as delicious. Because of their small size and tender nature, they are not ideal for placing directly on the home grill. They can be grilled by being wrapped in foil and topped with a pat of butter or olive oil and herbs.
In the field, I often clean the fish, but leave the head and scales intact. With larger fish, I might stuff the body cavity with herbs such as sorrel or sumach heads, but I rarely bother with panfish. I then place the fish directly in the coals of a campfire- I might even bury them. I generally flip the fish a minute or two after the eyes turn white. Once the fish's fins pull loose easily, they are done. They look horrible- blistered and scorched, the tails mostly burnt up. However, a pair of improvised chopsticks will effortlessly peel this skin away- scales and all. Underneath is pure white, perfect, delicious fish. The skins and bones will burn right up in the fire- no utensils and no clean-up needed!
At home, my favorite meal using panfish is fish tacos. I LIGHTLY flower my filets, seasoning the dredge with cumin, a bit of garlic salt, and red pepper. I sauté them til done, and then do the same with green onions cut into 2-3" long pieces. I slice up an avocado, chop a bit of fresh cilantro, and add a couple of filets and some of the veggies to a fresh tortilla. I dress it up with a bit sour cream and green salsa, and enjoy a light, tasty meal. I double dare you to try it!
All of Michigan's panfish are worth pursuing, both for the fun and for the reward of a fine meal. They are very prolific, in fact some regularly overpopulate and stunt themselves if not fished. The best part in my opinion is that they are the perfect subject of an outing with some young kids- a wonderful way to make a load of memories.
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Send an email to georgehedgepeth(at)hotmail(dot)com
Briar Patch Outdoors
219 Holmes Street
Durand MI 48429
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