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Scott Rall: Fish chips are what's for dinner

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

When it comes to eating fish I am not really a big fan. Good fish is OK, but in my book the cattlemen have me won over for sure. There is nothing better than a great steak.

When it comes to eating fish the average angler goes for volume over variety. When you catch one decent sized walleye, two folks can each have a walleye meal. If you manage to catch a limit of six there are six different walleye meals, and for folks that really dig fish this makes the walleye the king of fish at the dinner table.

I think that in our area, most fishermen would say they are walleye fishermen. Only a few anglers as a percentage of the total would say that they make panfish their primary quarry.

When it comes to eating pan fish you need many more numbers to make a meal. It would take six to eight bluegills to feed one person as much as one walleye fillet. We have many good walleye lakes in the area and very few good panfish lakes, and this makes eating fish pretty much a walleye thing.

I love catching fish and only keep what I can use. This amount does include a few meals for the folks who think fish is better than fillet mignon. I really struggle with the angler that will catch and keep 20, 30, or even 50 walleyes only to let them freezer burn and go to waste. The other over-harvesters offer to host a fish fry for the entire neighborhood so as to make more room in the freezer in order for more harvesting to take place. When I get fish in the freezer I catch and release until I am out and then add a few more fillets back for the next meal.

What I have not done for a really long time is catch and eat a meal of bluegills. They are plentiful and catchable in the Iowa Great Lakes, but I have not bought an Iowa non-resident license for several years.

I was on a recent trip to Upper Red Lake with my son-in-law Mark Remme, and on the third day we got blown off the lake. Winds were sustained 25 with gusts to 30. There was just no way that my 17-foot Alumacraft boat was suitable for these conditions. It was as close as I have ever come to being sea sick in an inland water. I was glad to be back on shore when we loaded the boat.

We got a tip and headed to a small 300-acre lake about 50 miles away and made it on to the water about 1:30 in the afternoon. The water was so clear that you could see the bottom in 15 feet of water. The bluegills were in the shallows and over the course of the next 4 hours we caught and release over 600 bluegills, sunfish and punkin’ seeds.

The fish were just totally suicidal and if the lake had been overloaded with boats there could have been thousands of fish caught and harvested. On the day that we were there we were the only ones on the lake. The fish were on their beds. What this means is that they were in the act of spawning and were guarding their spot from any intruders.

Hitting this bite just right on any given lake is a rare occurrence. We were there on exactly the right day and the phenomenal bite would most likely be over in only an additional day or two. We fished with a small jig and a bobber in about 21/2 feet of water. It did not matter if you used a wax worm, a small piece of leach or artificial bait. They ate everything in their path.

The neatest thing for me was that the little artificial bait I used was called a Gulp. It was bright orange in color. When I casted out you could see the little orange bait suspended below the bobber. I did not have to wait till the bobber went down.

As I watched the little orange bait it would just disappear as the bluegill inhaled the bait. As soon as I could not see the little orange bait I set the hook and caught another fish.

Using the perfect technique during this brief spawning bite is not necessary. The other fishermen in the boat were using heavy tackle and heavy line which on a normal day would result in very few fish. On this day it did not matter. On a mid-summer outing for bluegills the methods and tackle used does makes a big difference.

An ultra-light rod with four-pound test or less is usually required. I tie on a swivel just under the bobber to reduce line twist.

This keeps the line from twisting around the rod tip. A blue gill will swim in very tight circles as you wind them in and without the swivel you get the makings for lots of down time unraveling the line from the rod tip. It was a day of pan fishing unlike any other I have had before. The numbers and size were a rare occurrence.

The fish had a parasite in them that after they were cleaned made the meat look like it had been sprinkled with coarse ground pepper. There is big scientific name for this parasite, but at the end of the day if the fish is cooked thoroughly there is no danger in consuming them.

We kept fish this day. We stopped short of keeping a limit for each of the four-member team which was 20 per person.

It is pretty easy to tell the males from the females as the females are full of eggs and it shows. We kept the males and released the females. After we completed cleaning the fish we had only two fish that we misidentified that were females with eggs in them.

We kept the spawners in the lake by releasing the females and harvested the much more plentiful males. We certainly did not brag or boast about where these fish were caught for fear that the lake would get overrun. The majority of anglers would fill their freezer on a bite this good.

I do know of a few anglers that target panfish over walleyes. Really big bluegills can be harder to catch than a walleye on many days. Panfish need to be harvested and managed just like any other game fish. Too much harvest and all you have is a lake full of tiny panfish.

If you love fish, by all means, catch and eat them. I just think that fishing in the name of subsistence is not on the table anymore. Fish are a resource that needs to be cared for. This requires all anglers to use common sense and not think that just because the fish are on a hot bite that it is a license to harvest as many as you can get in a boat and then do it day after day after day.

Other than the panfish day we had, the weather kind of wrecked the balance of my annual outing on Red Lake. We did manage to catch 57 rough fish called a sheep head. They were biting like mad. It has never happened to us before and it will be interesting to see if it ever happens again. They fight good but when you don’t really like fish all that much in the first place, a sheep head is not likely to get cleaned by my or any other angler for that matter.

The fish I brought home went to the in-laws and my folks. It was good for a few brownie points and now I don’t feel as bad now when I ask them to watch my dogs. My new puppy Sarge comes home in only two weeks. Mom said I am on my own with him till he gets a little bigger.

I do have a few bluegills left. I did not give them all away. Fried in oil after coating in shore lunch and you have what I call fish potato chips. Everybody, including even me, likes crispy fish chips.

Catch a few panfish and give this a try. You just might find that walleye is not the only fish for dinner.