December 24, 2011
By Matt Straw
...not a creature was stirring. Except the fish chef. Who drove home late, through a light dusting of snow, with a mess of 7- to 8-inch panfish.
Four bluegills scaled and left on the bone work for the two of us. Plenty of meat there. It's a holiday tradition, eating first-ice fish from small local lakes — a festive celebration of the wild food still available to us long after the Harvest Moon.
These fish were under a canopy 5 inches thick, camped under patches of snow and milky ice. Under clear ice, nothing was happening. Not in 8 feet of water by the cabbage line. Bluegills don't just sit in the shade of those patches. They're moving around on the best days. You have to draw them in there, where you want them to be — where it's harder for them to see or sense you. I often bait-and-switch, attracting them with a Lindy Rattlin' Flyer, Rattle Snakie Spoon — anything small, noisy, and flashy. Then I switch to a 1/64- to 1/80-ounce jig or smaller, something that holds 2- to 4- maggots or a thin, twitchy plastic tail. I don't necessarily see fish on the flasher before switching. I just shake a rattling spoon for a minute or so and switch. Sometimes a bonus smallmouth, crappie, or walleye comes in on the rattler right away.
Sometimes it's a 10-inch bluegill.
Those go back down the hole. I'm looking for a few 8 inchers. A 7 incher will do. I like to gut-and-scale bluegills. I kill a lot fewer fish that way. Nobody wants to debone a dozen, but they'll wolf down a dozen fillets before the fry cook can sit down at the table.
We sprinkle bluegills with lime juice and sea salt then let them sit for 10 minutes before dusting with corn starch and frying them in 3 tablespoons of peanut oil on high heat. Two minutes or so per side. Then we slide them into a 350°F oven. But before doing all that, we make a sauce. I never thought anything could improve much on the natural and unique flavor of a bluegill until I found this Thai dipping sauce. It begins with the same foundation used to create many fine sauces designed to complement fish in Southeast Asia: In a saucepan, combine 3/4 cup water, 1/3 cup rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons brown sugar, and 2 to 3 tablespoons of minced, fresh ginger root. Stir like mad. Simmer gently until it's reduced by half (about 20 to 30 minutes). While this particular base bubbled away, I added a teaspoon of fine Japanese sesame oil, 1 teaspoon sea salt, a tablespoon of Vietnamese fish sauce, 3 chopped, red, Thai chiles, the stems of a few cilantro stalks, a teaspoon of Thai black soy sauce, two tablespoons of tow jiew (a thick, brown soyabean sauce), and two large cloves of garlic sliced in thin petals. Oooh. La. La. It explodes on every taste receptacle. Spicy, sweet, sour, salty, evened with garlic and laced with ginger that bites back. It assaults the palate with wonder. Somehow or another it perfectly compliments the unique and peculiar flavor found only in the firm flesh of a bluegill.
A big part of the solstice around this hacienda is finding new ways to enjoy the season's bounty in the days leading up to Christmas. Ways to make a festive, colorful, tasty meal with a coney, a few grouse, or some first-ice fish flesh. Some years it's a walleye, a pike — sometimes it's a succulent whitefish poached in brandy. It's like Second Thanksgiving, with main dishes personalized by game and fish indigenous to the immediate surrounds of home.