Ah, yes ... it's harvest time! And that can mean many things to many people.
From the good ol' Carroll County farming perspective, it means that the year's crops of corn, soybeans and others are being brought forth for the harvest and hard work that was put into the trade. For the fisherman, it not only means good fishing for many species as they fatten up for the winter, but it is a great time to keep some fish for the pan as well.
I'll be the first to admit that the majority of my angling, perhaps 70 percent, revolves around panfishing for the likes of bluegills, crappies, perch and catfish. These are often reffered to as "panfish" and the eating qualities of these species are superb. In October through December the water temperatures are cooling down and most of these species are active and preparing for the long winter ahead and feeding heavily. With reduced angling pressure due to hunting or family fall activities, the fishing can be great as the colder weather approaches. It is at this time when I do most of my 'harvesting' of panfish for some of those scrumptious fish dinners over the winter period when it can be tough to get out and catch enough for a meal.
Keep in mind that there are some bodies of water that can tolerate harvesting of fish more than others. The Maryland limit for bluegills, as well as crappies, is 15 fish per angler, per day. In Pennsylvania the daily limit is 50 panfish species combined to include bluegills, crappies, perch, rock bass and other sunfish species, per angler, per day. To me, keeping 50 fish seems almost criminal as that equates to 100 fillets. Although the Maryland limit of 15 may seem small, it is done to ensure harvest doesn't get out of hand and to maintain some of the better trophy panfish fisheries in the state. I'm cool with that! Although the 'one size fits all' regulations do not seemingly fit into every lake or pond, it is done to cover most of the bases in the panfishing world…the subject of a whole 'nuther story.
Fish caught and harvested in the fall and colder months, in my opinion, have firmer flesh and a better taste than those caught during the summer months. Fish keep better, too and I believe they fillet easier than those from warmer climes and times. If I am making a plan to keep some fish for the pan I still put them on ice. This does two things…keeps them fresh even if you have to delay fish cleaning chores for a few hours and allows the cooling flesh of the fish to easily separate from the bones via the fillet knife. The skinning proccess also is much easier with chilled crappies, bluegills and the like.
For me and my wife Linda, six decent-sized crappies or bluegills is all we can eat with a veggie and dessert. That's 12 fillets, and often a few are put in the fridge and munched on for a mid-day snack the following day. Now, if you throw in my son Matt and his gang, or worse yet the crew at my men's Bible study, then we're talking about a knock-down, drag-out "take no prisoners" and "every man for himself" eatin' ordeal.
Sheeessh, I have to break out the heavy stuff and do the deep fryer outside. It's OK, though, because everybody just sits around and burps and snoozes for the next several hours.
I like my boneless fillets deep or panfried, drained on towels and served with a nice vegetable and a tall cold glass of southern sweet tea. In order to achieve boneless fillets, you need to have bluegills in the 8 to 9 ½ inch range and crappies that will go 10 to 12 inches and up. Filleting techniques vary from one person to the next and some are using the electric fillet knives these days to make matters quicker and easier. But for me I have always used a blade, preferably a Rapala wood-handle fillet knife, and truly believe I get more meat off a fish than those using the electric knives. Yes, the electric option shines when dealing with larger fish like croakers, sea trout and stripers but the blade is my personal tool of choice for smaller fish.
The entire subject of fish filleting is deserving of an entire column, and more. There are enough YouTube vids out there to give you a good idea as to how it's done. Click on "Musky" Bill Modica's "Road & Snake" YouTube efforts for the best instructional on panfish filleting on the internet.
I always let my fillets soak in cold water in the fridge overnight to help drain any blood from them before freezing them in vacuum-sealed FoodSaver bags in appropriate amounts for various meal sizes. You do not have to soak fillets in salt water, although the old wives tale encourages this. I'll get arguments on this one, but soaking them in salt-water actually subtracts from the fishes natural flavors and does nothing to enhance their taste. Freze 'em up in vacuum bags or else plastic bags filled to the brim with water, thus freezing them in a solid block of ice.
Fish recipes are the topic of yet another whole write up. For basic starters, I like pancake batter, Old Bay, Jane's Crazy Mixed Up Salt and McCormack Season All as a dry mix. Soak fillets in ice cold milk or an egg wash and batter with the dry mix. Put them in the skillet at 375 degrees with 4 minutes on the first side and flip for 3 minutes on the other side. Drain and serve.
So … what time is supper?
Jim Gronaw is a Times outdoors writer. His column appears every other Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or email@example.com.