Northern Pike Fishing Part Three: From Hooked to Cooked

This is the third article in a three part series explaining all the basics of northern pike fishing. Over the past few weeks, we’ve celebrated an under-appreciated fish by helping you better understand northern pike  and explaining some of the best methods to catch pike. Now we’re going to show you how to turn them into delicious meals. If you missed Part One or Part Two, you’ll want to go check them out.  

On the evening of July 4, 1976, as the nation was celebrating its bicentennial, a Ford LTD Wagon with a 14-foot boat lashed to the roof departed Three Forks, Montana, destined for Dore Lake, Saskatchewan. I rode in the back seat with a friend, David, and his cousin, Ken. In the front seat were David’s and my father.

Well into the night, when he assumed us boys were sIeeping, I overheard my dad describing the terrors of serving aboard a World War II aboard a battleship bombed and targeted by Kamikaze pilots, the only words on the subject I ever heard him utter. We crossed the border into Canada, making me a bona fide international traveler. When the tired tires of the gargantuan wagon ceased their rotation on the gravel in front of a lakeside cabin some 24 hours later, we piled out to behold a broad, shallow lake ringed by a boreal forest.

We launched the next morning, happily piled on top of each other in the overburdened, underpowered craft. On the leeward side a tiny island, home to a gull colony encrusted in poo, we hit pike paydirt. By midafternoon, 40 northerns dangled from wire stringers tied to both sides of the boat.

That evening, my dad fried a dozen white, flaky fillets in a skillet on the squatty propane stove in the cabin’s kitchen. I forked the first bite into my mouth, immediately concluding the flesh from a slimy pike beat the heck out of my favorite fish ‘n’ chips I always ordered on the rare occasions we dined at Colonel’s Restaurant in Bozeman. It was the first self-caught fish I consumed that wasn’t a trout. We chewed through the entire mound of fillets, picking and spitting out the pesky Y-bones. Not a single side dish on any plate was consumed before the entre disappeared.

I have no idea what went through my dad’s head when he cooked those northerns, but by insight or accident he nailed it. Properly prepared, pike are among the culinary rock stars of freshwater fish.

It Starts With the Catch
Small pike and lunkers are imminently edible, but it’s the in-betweeners that make the best meals. We’re talking 24- to 28-inch fish, give or take an inch depending on abundance in your fishing hole. They’ll normally weigh in around 4 to 6 pounds. If pike in this range are readily available, toss the skinny guys—the proverbial hammer-handles and snakies—back overboard. They’ll yield less meat with more effort than preparing heartier specimens. Our Dore Lake outing so many years ago hit it perfectly. The vast majority of the catch that day was right around 6 pounds.

Like trout, pike on the plate is most pleasing to the palate when taken from cold to cool water, promptly gutted, kept chilled during transport, and consumed quickly. Those mouthwatering fillets I wolfed down way back in ’76 were in the pan less than six hours after they’d been the living flesh of a flat-snouted stalker in a weed bed. We kept them chilled on stringers over the side of the boat. When we went to pull them in after limiting out, one stringer held but a single fish. The others had twisted off on a broken stringer link. We spotted them on the bottom of the lake in some 8 feet of water. Ken stripped to his skivvies, dove overboard and retrieved the rest. A non-swimmer from a dryland ranch, I was mightily impressed.

Stringers are OK in chilly water. In warmer weather, a cooler of ice makes a better choice for same-day storage and transportation.

Neither my dad nor Roger, his friend, had filleted a pike. With three-and-a-half dozen dead fish heaped in several tubs in a screened cleaning house back by the dock, they hacked away on a couple of fish with the fixed-blade hunting knives popular for gutting big game in that bygone era. It was ugly, not only in terms of the mangled fillets, but the 15 minutes it took them to savage two fish. At that rate, they’d still be in the smelly, screened enclosure at midnight. They finally ponied up the quarter apiece the “lodge” charged to fillet the fish. It proved a bargain, but didn’t include the removal of the infamous Y-bones that keep so many anglers from a freshwater delicacy.

We could dive herein to a description of how to produce boneless fillets of pike. But YouTube is replete with nifty tutorials, and that’s probably an easier format to learn from. Suffice it to say, there are two basic methods for filleting northerns sans Y-bones. The first involves filleting the fish in the conventional manner, as you would a trout or walleye, then parting the slab of meat along either side of the bones to remove a chunk of with just the Y-bones or produce two boneless fillets.

The second method yields five fillets per fish. It starts with filleting the loin from the top of the back. Then you remove a fillet from both flanks below the protruding bones on either side. Finally, you remove two small fillets from back by the tail, where no Y-bones appear.

Either method is fine. The five-fillet scheme sacrifices a little more meat and yields small morsels on modest fish. Whichever you choose, be patient. It takes practice to become proficient as a northern fillet meister, but the scrumptious reward vastly outshines the effort.

Fillets can be frozen or canned in pieces (my mom thawed and canned copious fillets when dad and I returned from Canada with 20 pounds each). Vacuum-sealing extends preservation time, but frozen northerns are best when consumed within a couple of months of freezing. Pickling is one of the MeatEater crew’s favorite way to treat these fish, and has the added bonus of dissolving Y-bones so you don’t need to worry about fancy filleting methods.

Pike flesh is firm and tasty and begs for a simple preparation. Forget exotic marinades and pugent spices. Slathering those on pike fillets is like desecrating an elk tenderloin with ketchup. Our Dore Lake feast consisted of fillets dipped in a mixture of beaten eggs and milk, then dredged in flour with salt and black pepper. Dad fried them in hot vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet. Old-school, yes, but super-tasty—a perfect pike preparation. Beyond salt and pepper, mild spices such as lemon, a touch of garlic, oregano or Parmesan cheese are ideal for pike. That said, these are my personal prejudices, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with pairing pike with bolder seasonings. Any fish recipe suitable for mild, white flesh will put its best foot forward on a northern.

The heft and texture of pike flesh make it great for grilling with a rub. Before grilling, coat the fillets with a very light sheen of olive or other oil to help the rub adhere and decrease the likelihood of the fish sticking to the grill. Cook at medium to medium-high heat, turning just once (over-handling may cause the fillets to crumble). As a general rule, it will take about 10 minutes to thoroughly cook one inch of fillet. Thus, a half-inch sliver from a small pike should be done in about five minutes.

Maligned and misunderstood, the northern clan deserves more respect from anglers. They’re easy to find, fight like a rocket, and make a memorable meal. What’s not to like about a pike?

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