Lake ice is mystifying and alive. Ever-changing, it speaks in groans, cracks, and thunderclaps, expanding and contracting through harsh winter months. Besides the ice, the only sound you hear is the crunch of the fresh snow beneath your boots. Those footprints will soon be filled in as the wind works to cover any trace of your passing.
Some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten were next to a roaring fire surrounded by the eerie yet somehow comforting winter silence of a remote, Northwoods lake. The satisfaction of the first bite after traversing miles of grueling backcountry, setting up camp before sunset, hand drilling holes with an ice auger, catching a meal, and finally constructing a kitchen to fry fish is gratifying in a way that can only be understood by those who’ve done it.
A hefty amount of hard work goes into a full day on the ice. So, when it comes time to warm up and make a meal, simplicity is vital. After all, there’s no more straightforward meal out there than fresh fillets cooked right from the lake. To pull it off, you only need three things: fire, a cast-iron skillet, and a box of all-purpose, Shore Lunch fish breading.
I’ve seen as many different versions of shore lunch as I’ve heard fish stories. Some folks prefer the pre-made mix, others a cornmeal base, while others would instead make a lighter, flour-based breading. Some rely on a family recipe of spices while others prefer to use a pre-mix like MeatEater Mermaid’s Pantry. The one foundational constant of shore lunch is what it represents: a wonderful meal of fried fish enjoyed with friends and family. Whether it be in camp after a great day on the water or following a successful outing jigging for walleye, we all find commonality and comradery over a fresh, hot meal.
Devouring fresh fish surrounded by the beauty of nature is the easy part, so taking the time to prepare is key to overall success. It’s preparation, managing the elements, sound technique, and the right gear all coming together to honor both the catch and the experience, culminating in one of the best meals you’ll ever have. These are my tried-and-true tips and tricks to get the job done while on a breezy, frozen lake.
There’s often not much cover or shelter on a frozen lake, so cooking comes down to finding the right location. Find a place that shields your fire from the wind. Sure, you can bring a stove and cook inside a pop-up shelter, but where’s the fun in that? If the snow is deep enough, you can dig out an area large enough for you and the fire that will naturally block the elements. The lakeshore can yield a great place to build your kitchen too. A large rock will can help block the wind or you can dig yourself an area within the tree line, making sure to keep open air above you to allow safe passage for smoke and embers.
Start by clearing an area large enough for the fire and for you to work comfortably. Pack down and remove any unnecessary snow and loose ice so you have a level playing field. Make sure your area is facing the right direction to ensure your fire is shielded from the wind and begin constructing your fire. I prefer to start with a thick layer of green pine boughs. The green branches and needles help insulate the fire from the melting water that results from heat on open ice or snow. The fresh, green boughs will burn much slower than dry wood, keeping the water from the fire longer. Try to grab the boughs from a downed tree when possible. If this option doesn’t present itself, trim only small green branches from the bottoms of a few trees. A metal firepan works great if you have one available.
Once you have your cooking area staged, it’s time to get the fuel. Head into the woods and look for downed trees to cut or kick off branches. Make sure to get everything from small, pencil-sized kindling up to wrist-thick logs. Variation helps you build a fire quicker and keep it going longer. Always grab more wood than you think you’ll need. You’ll thank yourself when you don’t have to run back into the woods with fish frying while your fire is burning out. If you’re having trouble getting the fire going, dried moss, pinecones, and birch bark are phenomenal fire starters, but should only be taken from dead or downed trees unless it’s an emergency.
Tools of the trade
I like to build a platform to set my pan on using three large logs, each around 12 to 16 inches long. These logs go on top of the pine boughs or metal sheet in a U-shape with the open end facing towards you. The placement of the logs allows you to feed and control the fire, helps with airflow, and creates a stable area to place your pan once the fire has burned down so you have a solid base of coals to cook over.
My go-to choice for outdoors cooking is cast iron, specifically skillets and Dutch ovens. This material provides the versatility you need in the wild. It retains heat exceptionally well and is easy to work with when cooking fish over a fire. You don’t need much else besides a good pair of long stainless-steel tongs, fillet knife, and a thick pair of leather gloves. The tongs work as an extension of your arm, handling blazing hot coals, burning wood, and searing cast iron pans, all the while stirring and flipping the fresh fish and its accompaniments. These few simple gear choices are what make a successful shore lunch possible.
Once the wood burns down to coals, you’re ready to make the magic happen. You want medium to high heat on the bottom of your pan, but not so much that there’s flames licking around the edges. Fillet your fish and coat them in your desired shore lunch batter. The best way to do this is to bring the cornmeal or flour in a large Ziploc bag and just toss the fillets in with the mix.
Once your pan is on the fire and heated up, add your cooking oil. Olive oil, peanut oil, or butter all work great, but I’m personally a huge fan of bacon, especially when I know it’s going to be a cold day on the ice. For better or worse, bacon will forever be a part of the wild game cooking world. Whether it be bacon-wrapped poppers or grinding it into venison burger, bacon speaks a universal language of culinary accessibility.
In the case of cooking the perfect shore lunch, the bacon itself is simply a quick snack ahead of the real meal. The bacon grease is the real star of the show. Hands down, the best fish I’ve ever eaten is shore lunch style walleye fried in bacon grease. There’s nothing fancy about this preparation, yet it is yields everything amazing about a dish cooked over fire.
Once your oil is bubbling, place the breaded fillets in the pan. When the downward-facing edges start to turn brown, usually just a few minutes, flip the fillets. When the other side browns, pull them off. Be careful not to overcook and dry out your fish. Pair this with some smashed, fried potatoes along with a hot toddy, and I guarantee it will give you the fuel to rock out a killer night of fishing so you can do the whole thing over again tomorrow.