If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a thousand times: “I’m a catch-and-release fisherman because I don’t like the taste of freshwater fish.” Anglers and foodies alike who will happily eat saltwater species like tuna, swordfish, and haddock, always seem to turn their noses up at the idea of eating fish from a lake, river, or pond.
I understand that most people buy their fish in plastic-wrapped packages at the grocery store where there aren’t a lot of freshwater species on offer, but I don’t get how recreational anglers will happily spend over $5.00 a pound for a forkful of halibut when they spend their free time catching and releasing some much more readily available, tasty, and frankly cheaper alternatives.
Saltwater fish are admittedly delicious, and I will straight up devour a pound of ahi on occasion. But unless you live on the coast, making fish like this a regular part of your diet will cost you as much as buying a decent used car. Now I’ve always figured that freshwater anglers do this because some genuinely don’t like the taste of freshwater fish, but maybe it’s really because they’re just eating the wrong kind of fish. There are a ton of delicious freshwater species out there whose flesh is easily comparable with their ocean-dwelling cousins. Fish that taste good enough that it may make a few anglers rethink their view and give up their catch-and-release lifestyles altogether.
During the recent Lake Erie walleye scandal, I was as shocked and disgusted as everyone else when watching the footage of the fish being sliced open to reveal a gut stuffed with lead weights and extra fillets. However, it wasn’t just because of the blatant cheating. When they were cutting those fish open, the first thought that popped into my mind was “God, what a waste of fillets.” They’re that good.
Walleye are one of those fish that upon just hearing the name, I’ll involuntarily start to drool. Their meat is light and flaky with a texture not unlike a well-pounded chicken breast. It has its own unique, fresh flavor that makes it the perfect fish for dozens of different dishes. My grandmother had a recipe for a walleye bake with butter and croutons that was so delicious, I started learning how to be a better walleye fisherman just so she would make it.
From simply tossing fillets, cheeks, and wings in flour and frying them in a pan of hot oil, to chunking up the meat with potatoes and onions for a creamy chowder, to stuffing the fish whole with breadcrumbs, lemon, and butter and then wrapping them in foil and tossing them on the fire, it’s hard to go wrong or find a better-eating fish out there than the walleye.
Catfish have an undeserved bad reputation when it comes to being table fare. It’s no wonder honestly, with their beady pig-like eyes, whiskered mouths, a habit of living in dark, muddy, and murky water, and their diet that consists of pretty much anything. Some people consider them bottom feeders that taste like mud, and many anglers will actually cut their lines once seeing they’ve hooked a catfish rather than handle their slimy-skinned bodies. However, there are certain parts of the country, principally the Mid-West and the South, where catching and eating catfish is practically a religion—and it should be, because catfish are absolutely delicious.
Whether you’re talking about giant flatheads and blues, aggressive channel cats, or dainty yet scrumptious bullheads, there’s a satisfaction that comes with catfish eating that no other fish seems to have. Their flesh has a heartiness that makes it incredibly versatile that no matter how you prepare it, you always feel as if you’re eating something substantial. While it takes a bit of know-how to clean and prepare them, once you master the catfish there are few other species you’ll rather eat. From catfish sandwiches, to catfish creole, to catfish fritters, to catfish parmesan, there is something purely joyful about catfish eating that puts one in mind of sitting around the table with friends and family and enjoying the bounty of the harvest.
When I was a kid, I would bring home almost every fish that I caught for dinner. It was as if the fish didn’t count as actually being caught until I brought it back and showed it off. Since most of my childhood fishing was done with a worm and bobber, I ended up eating a hell of a lot of panfish. This wasn’t a bad thing, I found these small, aggressive, and easy-to-catch fish delicious. And as I’ve grown to an adult, that feeling hasn’t changed.
While there are some exceptions among panfish species, such as rockbass which have a bit of an oily, fishy flavor to them. Your typical panfish like crappie and bluegill have a light, delicate, sweet flesh that makes them some of the best-eating fish in freshwater. Their fillets and even their skeletons can be fried into crispy mounds of deliciousness. They can be gutted, scaled, and grilled whole with a bread crumb and butter stuffing, or lightly braised or baked for some more creative or exotic meals. Panfish are good enough eating to make even the most brazen big fish junkie revert back to the days of their childhood on occasion when they would happily sit on the dock with a cheap spin-casting rod and fill a bucket with a mess of panfish.
As a trout fishing guide, I live in a world of trout conservation where the centralized theme of the profession is complete dedication to catch and release. While this is all well and good, every now and then I have to take a step away from these lofty ideals and bonk a few squirming trout on the head. Then I’ll toss them in the cooler and bring them home for a good old-fashioned fish fry.
Trout are one of those fish you can do almost anything with when it comes to cooking, and it will almost always come out good. Trout flesh is light and delicate, yet is still oily and fatty making them the perfect fish for smoking or pickling. Trout are also a great fish for any raw-fish recipes as fileting and chilling the meat makes for great sashimi or ceviche. I even have a buddy who specializes in making his own homemade trout sushi. You can pan-fry a trout by the riverside, go total caveman and stick them on a stick to roast over the fire, or even get fancy with recipes like Truite Au’ Bleu (Blue Trout) or trout almondine. It’s all good stuff.
I can already hear the angry tapping of the comments that the lip-ripping, wacky-worm rigging, hardcore bass anglers are going to leave on this article. Bass are after all the country's most popular sportfish with the entire fishing industry seemingly bent towards catching them, holding them up for a badass grip and grin, and then tossing them back into the water to grow bigger for the next go around. But there are a few fishermen out there who love catching bass for an entirely different reason—they make for some damn good eating.
Both largemouth and smallmouth bass have a thick layer of muscles along their sides which helps make them some of the best fighting fish in freshwater and in turn also makes for some thick, almost steak-like filets. Possessing a slightly fishy edge to their flesh, bass are a fish-eaters fish with a flavor comparable to snapper or drum that can be cooked in much the same manner. Bass are great fish to whole-fry, where chunks of meat can be pulled from their large ribs and other bones with your fingers like you’re power-eating a roast chicken from the grocery store. They work extremely well in chowders and stews, can be braised or grilled with lemons and onions, beer-battered, or even transformed into a delicious bass-melt sandwich. Bass are a good enough eating fish that if it weren’t for their popularity with tournament anglers, we may accidentally eat them into extinction.
When it really comes down to it, whatever fish you like to eat is all a matter of opinion. Here, I’ve only listed a few of my personal favorites, excluding anything sea-run like salmon or striped bass since they aren’t a true freshwater species nor anything exotic like the South American Pacu (which may be the best-tasting fish I’ve ever had).
Instead, I’ve stuck to the everyman fish that are easily caught and readily available for every angler or foodie out there so long as they're willing to get out on the water and try their luck at catching them. While catch-and-release certainly has its place in the angling world, getting people away from the seafood aisle and out on their local water to enjoy the sport of fishing can do as much for protecting our fishing future and heritage as letting them go and letting them grow.