SCOTT RALL COLUMN: Cool by a big measure
WORTHINGTON -- Last week, I wrote about a spearing outing that took place on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes in north central Minnesota.
When I think about the diversity in nature, I continue to be overwhelmed. We have a certain number of fish species in southwest Minnesota and I know them all to a point.
To think that if you go down to the southern United States you will find an entirely different list of fish species, I probably know but just a small percentage of those fish species.
I only had to drive 5 hours north and I reached a lake that had a fish species different than I had ever encountered at home before. The Lake Whitefish is so different than any other fish species in my area that I just had to find out more about them.
The Lake Whitefish is in the salmon family. It was very common decades ago and represented one of the most commercially-harvested fish in the North Country and in Canada.
They are also in the Great Lakes, but their numbers were dramatically reduced from over harvesting by commercial interests. Much has changed since then and Lake Whitefish populations have recovered, but are nowhere near what they once were.
Lake Whitefish are pursued by rod and reel sport anglers very infrequently because they are hard to target during the summer months. In the summer, these fish can spend their days in 150- to 200 feet of water.
Most of the recreational whitefish harvest is done by spearers in the hard winter seasons. Most fish species spawn in the spring, and this is why the game fishing seasons are closed to harvest in Minnesota from the end of February to early May to protect these spawning fish.
The whitefish is very different. This fish spawns in the late fall -- late October to the end of November is typical. They spawn in less than 20 feet of water and swim from the bottom to the surface as they lay their eggs.
These eggs are fertilized and fall to the bottom of the lake. Most areas where spawning takes place have a rock, rubble or sand bottom. These fish hatch in the spring and make it on their own from Day 1.
They occupy only select waters in the state that have high quality water that is cold and deep. Lake of the Woods, although not very deep in the Minnesota side, has deep water on the Canada side and has small numbers of these fish.
Leech Lake has one special bay that is really deep and, along with the Whitefish Chain, has better established populations as well. Other waters with cold, deep water (at least 150 feet deep) can also have whitefish, but this habitat is not all that common. Only 150 of our 10,000 lakes can support whitefish.
Whitefish can live to be 30 years old. Most other game fish species are dead by the age of 10 to 15 years.
The whitefish is silver with gray/black modeling on its sides. It looks like a cross between a common sucker and a crappie, but much bigger.
The one in the picture last week was 24 inches long. They have a mouth designed to feed off the bottom, but are taller and more slender than a sucker. Their mouth does not resemble the carp or the sucker, which have mouths on the very bottom of their heads and really don't have much of a lower jaw. It was designed with the top jaw overhanging the bottom for bottom feeding.
These fish eat other fish eggs, small fish, insects, clams and snails. We decided to open the stomach of one of the fish we speared to see what it had been eating.
The stomach looked and felt more like the gizzard of a pheasant. It looked like it was designed to grind up food. When we opened it up, it was jammed completely full of small black snails.
When we were spearing, the water was moderately cloudy and we came to the conclusion that maybe the water was a little stirred up from these fish feeding on a nearby sand bar in search of these snails.
Whitefish are considered some of the best table fare of any fish. I am not a big fish fan, in general, but understand that others would rather eat a great fish than a big rib-eye steak.
I prefer the steak.
Whitefish is served smoked in many restaurants, where they are available. Our group was pretty good at this method, so we fired up the smoker to make this presentation a reality.
We filleted the fish and left the skin on. We added a half-cup soy sauce, one can of Coke, a half-cup of brown sugar, a quarter-cup of salt, and one teaspoon of garlic powder and put it all in a Zip Lock bag.
It went in the refrigerator for 24 hours and then into an electric smoker for about 5 hours. This smoker had the ability to bake at higher temperatures when the smoking was done.
Everyone who tried some fish on a cracker was all "ooh and ahh" over it. I tried it and it was very good, but I still prefer a steak.
This electric smoker is a nifty idea and I have wanted one for some time. So, I am going to start asking around and do a little of my own research.
When I complete my outdoor investigation, I think I will have one sitting on the back steps at my house for fish and other dishes.
I am going to try this with other kinds of fish that can be caught around here and see if it is as good as the renowned Lake Whitefish.
I will keep you posted.
Scott Rall is The Daily Globe's outdoor columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.