Pickerel passion, bones and all

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The other day I received this e-mailed letter from Teresa:

Dear Paul: I caught a beautiful pickerel the other day, had to put him back because I’m not sure of how to fillet the fish. I’ve been told they’re loaded with bones. I love to eat northern pike, is this fish anything like that in taste? I’ve also been told that you know how to fillet one, can you tell me how or recommend a book that will show me. Love to eat fish.

Here is my response:

Dear Teresa,

As Maine fish species go, pickerel, like togue (lake trout), are the Rodney Dangerfields of our state freshwater fishery. “They just don’t get no respect.” If you ask me, pickerel are a blast to catch, especially on a fly rod with a popping bug. They eat well, too, especially when caught through the ice in the winter. The trick, of course, is to find a way to get to the delicate white meat without choking on the bones.

Our Creator – it would seem – did not intend for man to feast on these bone-laden fishes. Those wispy, long bones have discouraged many a fish eater who decided that getting throat-speared by a sneaky fish bone was too big a price to pay for a mouthful of sweet meat. Nevertheless, through trial and error and with the help of some preparation tips from my Medford guide friend, Doug Russell, we eventually adopted and fine-tuned a surefire way to cook and eat pickerel free of bone-choking anxiety.

Here’s what you do:

1. Take a sharp fillet knife, and carefully slice off both fillets from the pickerel, leaving the skin attached to the meat.

2. Scrape off the brunt of the larger scales (But don’t work too hard at this).

3. Turn the fillet over on a cutting board, meat side up. Using a razor-sharp fillet knife, start at one end of the fillet and draw the blade across the flesh until it barely reaches the underlying skin. Continue to make vertical cuts across the fillet. Space the cuts about one-half inch apart. Then turn the fillet and make a series of horizontal slices similarly spaced. What you are doing, in effect, is crisscrossing the cuts and making a cube steak of pickerel meat with the skin still attached and uncut.

4. Place the cubed fillets in a refrigerator dish and pour over them a cup or so of evaporated milk. Let this set for an hour or so, or even all day.

5. Remove fillets from dish and roll in your favorite fish batter (A mixture of well-peppered flour and corn meal will do fine).

6. Place the battered fillets flesh down in a skillet coated with a generous layer of cooking oil (olive oil is best) and cook until both sides are golden brown.

7. Remove and drain well on paper towels. Serve hot.

Lot of work? Yep. But don’t take shortcuts. The cubing, the milk-soaking, and the frying in hot oil all serve to minimize the bones and liberate all of that sweet, succulent fish flesh. And it is some good! In fact, prepared this way, a chain pickerel will give any pan-fried trout or salmon a run for its money. Try it. And if you don’t get, er, all caught up in the pickerel passion, I’ll send you a copy of my North Woods Bean recipe.

Best regards.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com.

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