As you can imagine, a guy like me who makes food look “pretty” and writes a food blog, isn’t known for his prowess as a fisherman. Oh sure, my dad gave me some basics about fishing panfish as a child. Heck, he even took me out occasionally in the summer at our cabin in northern Wisconsin. He soon realized he had better luck on his own than he did hauling me onto a lake at 6am. Sitting in a boat for hours while being quiet was never my forte. Forget about expecting me to bait my own hook.
Well, not much has changed over the last thirty-five to forty years. Just ask Dave Knickelbine.
Dave recently volunteered to be our ice fishing guide. Jena, always full of ideas, had an idea for a fishing theme for LRL. Of course, due to my vast knowledge of the sport, I suggested we do one on ice fishing. Mind you I had never been ice fishing but I live in WI, so why not?
Dave and his wife Cathie invited us all to join them at their scenic house near Mondovi, WI. Mondovi is a little town near the Mississippi just south of Eau Claire, WI. Dave, who can only be described as a true sportsman, had no idea what he was in for. Nor was I going to spill the beans about my less-than-stellar fishing abilities.
Little did I know that Jena was in the same boat as me–pardon the pun. For those of you who have no idea what ice fishing in the Midwest is like, just imagine. All of the patience and knowledge of a good fisherman, then substitute a bucket for the boat and drop the temperature about fifty degrees!
Starting off on the right fin.
Our ice panfish excursion started much the way any fishing or hunting trip in Wisconsin starts. Staying up till the wee hours of the morning drinking multiple forms of libations the night before.
Since we refused to use common sense, we got a late start in the morning. Dave had already done the hard work of getting the poles and pop-up rigs ready and packing the equipment needed. So we had that going for us. I made up a batch of apple bourbon slushes, as seen last in our Infused Booze II article back in September. Jena grabbed some beer and Dave & Craig remembered everything we really needed including trivial things like bait.
When in Mondovi
When you start an ice fishing trip, getting your mood right is key. Especially when you are “suffering” and you know the 4″ of fresh snow will make things more difficult. Sometimes, the best way to encourage that good mood is picking up where you left off the night before.
We stopped at a local tavern for a pre-fishing “bloody” to get our minds right. The Bloody Marys were less a drink, and more a meal. A large Bloody Mary with a beef stick, pickle spear, jumbo shrimp, and a celery stick filled with cheese wiz.
Once we powered our way to the chosen site with Dave’s 4 x 4 pickup, it was time to haul our stuff and start fishing.
Setting Up Camp
You know that old story your parents used to tell you about walking uphill both ways to school? Well, we needed to haul all our equipment uphill both ways as well.
We trekked over railroad tracks and snow-covered ice to find the “perfect spot.” The word “workout” does not begin to explain the effort required to get everything moved. However, the sun was shining, it was a balmy fifteen degrees, and we were excited to catch some panfish, so no problem.
Now normally, being such a helpful guy, I would dive right in and help get things ready. However, being clueless as to the process, I found myself standing around watching Dave & Craig. They drilled the holes with a large auger and set up our fishing home for the day. Dave was even nice enough to bait my hook, which I did not request. But by this time he obviously knew it was going to speed things up. Much the same way my dad patiently watched me bait a hook as a kid, then took the hook and did it for me.
I appreciated it then, and I did this time as well.
Teach a Man to Fish…
Once all the holes were drilled and the tip up poles (which have a flag that springs up when a fish bites) were set up, we started fishing. Just like in the summer, fishing for panfish requires holding your line in the water and watching the bobber closely for it to move. If you don’t keep a close eye on your bobber, you’ll never see whether a fish is biting or not.
I found I was really good at this… for about fifteen minutes, just like when I was as a kid. Then I got bored and thought having a beer sounded better than watching a bobber. Needless to say, Dave didn’t get much help from me fish-wise. As a matter of fact, the only one who caught any panfish that day was Dave.
But I did contribute! I made some awesome venison cheeseburgers on the grill, and the whiskey slushes that I threw together in a grocery store parking lot were outstanding. Meanwhile, Jena worked tirelessly behind the camera looking for the perfect shot. It’s amazing how cold a camera can get when it’s ten degrees outside!
Bring on the panfish!
It took about two hours before Dave caught the first fish: a nice-sized crappie. I can only imagine what he must have been thinking as Jena and I excitedly played with the half-alive fish for an hour trying to capture that perfect pose. Once Dave caught the first one, he honed in on where the school of fish was located. “They’re about a foot off the bottom” he said. I apparently was NOT a foot off the bottom. The only thing I caught was a case of cold hands trying to rework the bobber.
I am always amazed when I see a talented sportsman work their craft with precision. The nuance between catching fish and going home empty handed can literally be inches. For example, when asked if we could get some pictures of the fish on the line, Dave, while ignoring the request, quickly removed the fish from the hook, tossed it onto the snow next to him, re-baited the line and got it back in the water.
No time for pictures. Why? Simple, where there is one fish, there are often many, and a fisherman would never screw around with photos when there are fish waiting to be caught. If we were living off the land like our ancestors did, the rest of us would have gone hungry, while Dave would have fed his family.
When it boils right down to it, that’s what makes a sportsman like Dave successful. Whether it’s fishing or hunting deer, duck, turkey or pheasant, you can judge the level of talent by the results. Thank goodness we had Dave, because without him, the only fish we’d have brought home would have been the minnows we had left.
River to Table Panfish
As the sun was setting on the great Mississippi, I realized how important it is to have people like Dave and Cathie in this world. Sportsmen, who cherish the water they fish on and the land they hunt on. They work hard to be successful at their craft and they are rewarded with fresh, unprocessed food.
From the venison burgers we had for lunch, to the fish we ate that evening, one thing is for certain: we would all appreciate our food a little more if we understood where it came from and how hard it was to get.
So the next time you have perch, walleye, or bluegill at your local fish fry, remember guys like Dave, who stare at little bobbers floating in a hole in the ice waiting for a sign that a fish is ready to be caught. Without them, you might be eating something else.
Feeling tired and hungry, we headed back to the house with a bucket of fish waiting to be cooked. It occurred to me on the thirty-minute drive back that I had felt his way before. It was after a long day of sledding or playing in the snow as a kid. Exhausted from the exercise and the cold air hitting your face. Looking forward to a good meal and a warm cup of cocoa.
A Fisherman’s Feast
The menu was a typical Wisconsin fish fry with a twist or two to keep things fresh. Pistachio crusted panfish with broccoli slaw and potato pancakes. I liked the combination of pistachios and panko. I also made a simple gluten free sautéed panfish with a rum butter pan sauce. The gluten free all-purpose flour did not brown as well as regular flour, but the brown rice and tapioca flours had a nice, light flavor.
I found the gluten free all-purpose flour at Trader Joes, but you can substitute regular all-purpose flour if you don’t need to eliminate gluten. Neither fish dish would be complete without a tangy tartar sauce to enjoy. I used some of the tartar sauce as the dressing for the coleslaw, which was a great way of cutting down time. The potato pancakes were pretty basic, except instead of using raw potatoes, I used frozen hash brown potatoes: once again to cut corners. It is often necessary to make sacrifices when working in an unfamiliar kitchen. Especially when you are exhausted from fishing all day.
We all enjoyed the meal that evening, as well as the conversation that went with it. With a full belly and some relaxing around the fireplace, it was time to hit the sack. Falling asleep was easy that night.
As I drove away the next day I was grateful to have experienced another Wisconsin tradition with some new friends. I’m looking forward to the next adventure, wherever it may take Little Rusted Ladle. Until next time, cook with love and live to cook.
Pistachio Crusted Panfish Recipe
- 1 cup Panko crumbs
- 1/2 cup Shelled pistachios finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp Seasoned salt
- 1/2 tsp Black pepper
- 2 Eggs beaten
- 1/4 cup Almond milk (may substitute 2% milk)
- 1/2 cup Gluten free all-purpose flour (may substitute all-purpose flour)
- 8-12 ozs Fresh perch, bluegill, or walleye filet
- Canola oil for frying
- Combine first four ingredients in a shallow dish and set aside.
- Combine eggs and almond milk in another shallow dish and set aside.
- Add flour to another shallow dish and set aside.
- To bread fish, dip one fish filet in pan of gluten free all-purpose flour, then dip into egg mixture, then into Panko/nut mixture. Lay flat on a sheet pan. Repeat with remaining fish filet.
- Fry breaded filet in 350 degree preheated oil for 3-4 minutes or until golden brown.
- Drain on newspaper, sprinkle with salt, and serve with tartar sauce and lemon wedges.
Gluten Free Sauteed Panfish with Rum Butter Sauce
- 1 cup Gluten free all-purpose flour (may substitute all-purpose flour)
- 1 tsp Cajun seasoning
- 1 tsp Black pepper
- 6-8 each Fresh panfish filet (bluegill, perch, or crappie)
- 1 tsp Canola oil
- 1/3 cup Spiced rum
- 1 tbsp Fresh orange juice
- 2 tbsp Unsalted butter
- Combine gluten free flour, Cajun seasoning, and pepper in a small bowl.
- Dredge fish filet in flour mixture.
- Preheat a frying pan over medium heat.
- Add canola oil, then add fish filet one at a time, shaking off excess flour.
- Saute for 2-3 minutes per side or until just cooked through.
- Transfer fish to a plate and cover with foil.
- Remove pan from heat then add rum. Return to heat and cook until liquid is almost evaporated. Caution: if using a gas stove, alcohol may ignite, so keep face away from pan. Add orange juice and butter.
- Remove from heat and stir until butter has melted into liquid. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over warm fish and serve.
- 1 20 oz bag Frozen, shredded hash brown potatoes thawed
- 3 lg Eggs beaten
- 1/2 cup Gluten free all-purpose flour (may substitute all-purpose flour)
- 1 Green onion chopped
- 1 tsp Seasoned salt
- 1 tsp Black pepper
- 2 tbsp Canola oil
- Combine all ingredients in a large bowl.
- Add a teaspoon of oil to a preheated frying pan over medium heat.
- Add 4-5 heaping tablespoons of potato mixture to the hot pan.
- Flatten with the back of a spoon.
- Fry 3-4 minutes or until golden brown. Turn with a spatula and fry an additional 3-4 minutes.
- Transfer cakes to a sheet pan and cover with foil. Keep warm in a 175 degree oven.
- Repeat with remaining potato mixture.
- 1 12 oz bag Broccoli slaw blend (may substitute cabbage blend)
- 1/2 cup Prepared tartar sauce
- 1 tsp White vinegar optional
- Combine ingredients in a large bowl.
- Refrigerate for 1 hour or until ready to serve.
- For added flavor, you may add fresh herbs such as dill, parsley, tarragon, or chives.
- 1/2 cup Mayonnaise
- 1 tbsp Fresh-squeezed orange juice
- 1 tbsp Fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tbsp Capers drained and rinsed
- 1/4 cup Pickle relish drained
- 1/2 tsp Cajun seasoning
- 1/4 tsp Black pepper
- Combine all ingredients in a small bowl.
- Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Serve with fried fish.