They say first impressions are lasting. Not so, though, with fish. Take the chain pickerel. By rights, I should loathe and fear this voracious, torpedo-like predator. But that’s not the case. In fact, I love em! Let me explain.

I met my first pickerel as a 4-year-old angler, and we didn’t get off to a good start. My father introduced me to this toothy fish one overcast July afternoon at George’s Pond near Franklin. To entertain me, while he was casting a plug for bass, Dad dropped my line on the bottom with a small yellow perch attached. Long story short: the Mother of All Chain Pickerel became impaled on my hook. We decided to keep the fish cause it was cheap groceries, and Dad had been recently put out of work. But when he attempted to boat this invader from the weeds, I screamed, and so Dad elected to tow Jaws back to camp.

Time passed. I learned to love fishing for just about every fish Maine had to offer, save pickerel. Then I started taking my 4-year-old boy ice fishing. To keep him interested after the hot dogs were gone, I began somewhat reluctantly to focus on pickerel. It worked. Scotty took to it. Together we raced from flag to flag. In fact, the fast action began to grow on us both, and my childhood pickerel aversion quickly faded.

The eating challenge remained, though. In our family, one never catches or kills anything that isn’t consumed. And yet the Lord – it would seem – did not intend for man to feast on these bone-laden fish. 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 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 to 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 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 criss-crossing 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.

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 winter-caught chain pickerel will give any pan-fried trout or salmon a run for its money.

The author 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 Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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