The First Fish

I cannot actually remember the first fish that I caught. It is not something that I regret, really, because I have been fishing since before I can remember. But if I had to bet, I would wager that my first fish was a bluegill.

These diminutive fish are native to the east coast but have been transplanted to just about every park pond, lake or slow moving stream in the west by now. For good reason, mind you. They are prolific breeders, great tasting, easy to maintain fish populations. In my opinion they are the perfect “practice” fish for young anglers.

Like most fishing getting to the larger ones can be a challenge; one I accept with my feet. Much like the deer hunting rule that states “one ridge back you lose 50% of the hunters, two ridges back you lose 80%…hunt on the third ridge back” the same theory applies to fishing back country ponds as well. The more isolated the location, the bigger the bluegill.

My “go to” location for big bluegill is Halverson Lake, near Murphy Idaho. It requires a one and a half mile hike across a boulder field – the terrain looks like mars. But this area is isolated enough that most folks ignore it, in comparison to the suburban ponds, that’s why I will publish its name.

As the Darth Vader to three Luke’s I almost always have one or more companion on my fishing adventures. But more and more frequently, in order to get my 12 year old to participate, I have been bringing the neighborhood friends. On my last trip to Halverson we had the Tahoe full of 3 extra pre-teen boys. Making the gaggle of children under my control a record 6, a foolish move by my estimation. The littlest of the group, my youngest son, rode in one of those “carry your kid” packs while the older boys had their own mess hall worth of snacks, water and candy.

When we reached Halverson I set down my backpack full of boy. Unbuckling the little one and setting him free onto the terrain. I corralled the other boys – giving them the marching orders for the day. No cliff faces, no swimming, no throwing rocks and stay within sight of the water. Other than that, have at it. Take in nature, build swords, build bows – develop siege engines for the total destruction of Mordor.  Basically be a boy and be away from a video game and screens.

Eventually I fished out my backpacking rod, grabbed a worm and cast out drop shot style. No fancy set up, nothing technical. Quickly I found a branched stick, drove it into the sand and was doing my best to relax amid the chaos, hoots and hollers of six boys.

Then I waited for the bump that I knew would come. In about five minutes, just enough time for my three year old to get bored and wander away to explore, I watched the rod tip bend slightly. Then I watched the rod just get hammered, the end twitching and the pole nearly falling out of its Y-stick holder. I leaned forward and set the hook with a quick jerk. Fish on!

Quickly I called to my youngest. When had the rod in my youngest sons hands, I begged him to reel. He grabbed the pole and simply held it – looking at me for instruction. Only then did I realize that he had never caught a fish before. He had no idea what to do – no clue on how to reel, how to hold the pole, how to stand. He was a tabula rasa (blank slate) fisherman, fisherkid, whatever.

I quickly took the pole back, reeled in a little to make sure the fish was still attached and then squatted. I called Jordan closer to me and let him stand between my spread legs. Then, still holding the pole for support I showed him how to reel. Slow but strong he started cranking the line toward shore. Something that he could not see was pulling him toward the water – and it was all this poles fault! He kept looking at me like I was lighting one of his Thomas the Trains on fire. But he did not stop. Soon the fear turned into determination.

The boys started to gather near the bank as the youngest beached the first bluegill of the day. A nice hand sized eater. The youngest was all smiles, but refused touch the fish. Quickly it was on a stringer, waiting to be supper.

I cast back to the same location, bluegill often school up, and waited. With a bump and bounce of the pole I set the hook and hollered “who’s up!”

The neighbor kid – a tall skinny red haired boy – quietly raised his hand. I waved him over to me, keeping the line tight. “Have you ever caught a fish?” I asked.

IMG_1065“Nope” he said, shyly.

“Keep the tip up, reel and have fun” I said, loosening the drag a little and handing the pole off. The bluegill on the other end of the line made my reel scream. Not really because of size, though it as a nice fish, but because of loose drag. I wanted the boy to have a fight and he did. Every time the fish came close to shore is would shoot back to open water, making the neighbor kid grimace with determination and reel all that much harder. Soon, the prize fighting bluegill was spent and came to shore skimmed across the top of the water.

“I’m next!” shouted one of the other boys. I cast out, handed him the pole and relaxed for the next hour watching a group of boys be entertained with one fishing pole and some worms. Not an Xbox in sight.

When we got back to the house I sent each home with their catch, reminding them that if they kill it they have to eat it. In the end I know the neighbor boy will always remember his first fish, even if my youngest does not. And that is ok – it doesn’t matter if you know when you started fishing or you don’t, it only really matters that you have gone fishing.

Bluegill Escabeche

No matter how long I cook for every now and then I get shown a dish that I had no I idea existed before. Case in point is Escabeche. I grabbed my copy of Jesse Griffiths awesome book, Afield: A Chefs Guide to Preparing Wild Game and Fish, and started examining the recipes. Eventually I landed on his recipe. I was blown away – it was like a cooked fish ceviche with lots of cool flavors and textures.

This is a classic dish in many cuisines – it has roots in Spanish cooking but can be found basically anywhere that culture had influence. I have seen recipes for Pilipino, Portuguese, Jamaican, and Mexican versions. It is a culturally diverse concept, one I will be adapting soon.

The basics involve making a fish pickle and serving it luke-warm or cold. Boil some vinegar and vegetables then pour the hot mix over the fish. The hot liquid cooks it and then pickles it. Yum. I like to serve it like a ceviche, with some salty corn tortilla chips. (Don’t make freshwater fish ceviche, it might not hurt you, but it might…why risk it)

The recipe attached is a variation of Chef Jesse Griffiths, with a little Northwest flare in the ingredients. Bluegill escabiche

Bluegill Escabeche

1 pound skinless bluegill fillets, this is about 10 plus hand sized pan fish

Salt and pepper

1 Tablespoon olive oil

6 Garlic cloves, crushed and sliced thin

Zest of one orange

Zest of one lime

Zest of one lemon

1 Tablespoon brown sugar

1 Red onion, sliced thin

2 Jalapeños, coin cut thin

1 Red pepper, sliced thin

1 Teaspoon dried oregano

8 Sprigs thyme, fresh

2 Bay leaves

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated

1 cup white wine

1 cup rice wine vinegar

(Optional – 1 Tablespoon Sriracha)

Line a 9X13 pan with the bluegill fillets. A single layer thick, if possible. Next add the olive oil to a 2qt sauce pan and heat on medium low for 3 minutes.

Add the garlic and cook about 1 minute, until very fragrant but be very careful not to burn. Next add the remaining ingredients to the pot. Bring to a simmer.

When very hot, almost boiling, remove the pan from the stove. CAREFULLY pour out the vinegar mix onto the bluegill fillets. Let stand for 10-15 minutes to cool. Cover and refrigerate. This will allow the flavors to meld with the fish.

Serve luke-warm or completely chilled.

How to Butterfly a Roundfish 

This is a great skill to have – the Butterfly. If you can learn this technique on a trout it makes steelhead, salmon and bigger fish very easy. Below is a picture guide on how to cut up a round-fish (as opposed to the other common shape – the flat fish – think halibut and flounder for those)

First start with a round-fish – a trout, salmon, steelhead ect. Gut the fish and move it to a clean cutting surface.  At the anal fin slice along the spine toward the tail fin.

  Cut so that you expose the skin on the underside of the back of the fish. See below.   Next slide the tip of the blade under the ribs of the fish. Then slowly push the knife toward the spine, working your way up each section of the fish.   Repeat the knife under the ribs slide until the entire half of the fish is “ribbed”  Next slide the knife along the spine, you will feel resistance from pin bones at this point. You will need to simply slice through them, removing them later on bigger fish.  Repeat the process on the other side of the fish.    When both sides are completly cut the bones should come up off the back skin. Cut free the meat that is still attached, careful not to puncture the skin.   Cut off the tail.    Butterflied Trout with bones pulled up. Cut off the head at this point.   Butterflied trout with roe. Yum. Cook with this recipe.   

Interview – Chef Mark Owsley

Chef Mark Owsley

Coming up in the food scene in Boise I was always told stories of a bad-ass bowhunting chef. He had worked his way up from being a dishwasher to running one of the most respected restaurants in the whole state of Idaho. He did this at a place called “The Gamekeeper”…I mean how could I not love that. Add to that dynamic a chef who was as likely to shoot an elk as he was to serve it and basically Mark Owsley was a Boise legend.

I have had the good fortune of knowing Chef Owsley for years now. But frankly I regret never working for him. Recently Owsley left Boise for a more stable gig in Twin Falls. I caught up with him recently – and here are some words of wisdom.  

Question – Chef in the Wild: So, Twin Falls…how do you like the new digs?

Answer – Chef Mark Owsley: I don’t mind Twin Falls at all. Small town atmosphere and you can be out surrounded by game. Also, you are 5 minutes from anywhere and it’s a good place to stay in shape. You can walk up and down the canyon to get your cardio going.

Q: As the longtime Executive Chef at the Owyhee Plaza hotel you ran the Gamekeeper. Did the name and connection with wild game always ring true from the kitchen?

A: Working at the gamekeeper was awesome. Yes, we always ran wild game specials with lots of options on the menu. We ran: Elk, Deer, Lamb, Ostridge, Emu, Caribou, Aligator and others that I have forgotten. Tried to run Kangaroo one time, but wasn’t a favorite of the public (Too Cute I think).

Q: How did you get into hunting? Specifically bow hunting?

A: I have always had a passion for hunting. From the time I went out with my Grandpa in the late 70s with rifle, or grabbing a bow in 1980 and loving it. I started out using a recurve then moved on to the compound a few years later. Shot my first deer and my first elk with my bow. Now I am primarily a bow hunter. Nothing like being out in the wild, peacefully hiking through the woods with your bow. Even those days you don’t see anything, it is a great day! This is the one main thing I look forward to every year – September.

I also love to play softball and basketball.

Q: When did the connection to wild game and being a chef “click”?

A: The connection to being a chef just kind of fell into place for me. When I was younger working at the Gamekeeper, I wasn’t sure what I was going to be? Having two great chef’s Like John Fisher and Tony Perazzo guiding me helped me reach my decision. Matter of fact, I tried to quit one time in the early 80s and Chef Fisher wouldn’t let me! Kind of cool!!

Wild game also just fell into place for me. Working at the gamekeeper and loving hunting and fishing just means the stars all aligned perfectly for me.

Q: What is the next challenge? Another big bull?

A: My next Challenge would probably be get into better shape. As I get older the mountains get tougher. My goal is always to shoot a bull, if the big one steps in the way then BONUS. Not totally against shooting a cow either.

Q: Closing thoughts about how to treat game or how to cook it?

A: I have found out with bowhunting that you need to take care of your game quickly and properly. Generally when someone says they don’t like deer or elk because they are to “wild tasting”, I would blame that mostly on how the game was taking care of. When bowhunting it is still pretty warm out, get the hide off the animal and get the meat chilled as soon as possible. Keep the meat clean. As far as cooking a good elk steak, don’t overcook it. Medium Rare or a bit less is best in my book.

You know switching over to health care has been a great move for me. Being more conscious of eating healthier isn’t a bad thing. We are always getting comments like: great restaurant quality food, or, not hospital food anymore, best restaurant in town (in our café), I never thought a person could be treated as well as I am treated here. Even though I do miss working at the Keeper, to a point, it is also great to have weekends and evenings off to enjoy family and life. Getting your vacation time without interruptions isn’t bad either. Taking two weeks off in a row has its benefits also (better chance of hitting the Wapiti Rut)

Thanks Randy! Talk to you soon.

>>>>>I also asked Chef Owsley for a recipe that he could share for all the wild game eaters out there. He obliged with a cool dish.<<<<<

Rocky Mountain Elk with Wild Cherry Sauce – recipe courtesy of Chef Mark Owsley.

(Serves 4)

8-2oz Elk Tenderloin medallions

1 oz butter

Crushed Black pepper

Kosher Salt

Pound elk medallions to ¼ inch thickness. Pre-heat sauté pan on medium heat then add butter. Lightly season elk medallions with Crushed black pepper and kosher salt. Place medallions into pan and sear on both sides for about 1 minute. Brown is good, black is bad – for both butter and meat. Pull Medallions out of sauté pan so elk doesn’t continue to cook. Reserve.

Wild Cherry Sauce

20 Fresh Cherries

1 oz Crème de cassis (wild berry liqueur)

4 oz brown sauce (recipe to follow)

4 Mint leaves

Remove pit and ¼ all the cherries. Add cherries to the hot sauté pan the elk was cooking in. Keep heat on medium. Soon as pan is simmering add the Crème de cassis (this may flame up so be careful). Add the brown sauce and simmer for about 2 minutes. Tear mint leaves into small pieces and add to sauce. With the elk presented on a plate, top with the wild cherry sauce.

Hunter’s Barley

1 lb cooked barley (follow cooking instructions on barley container, then rinse and chill)

2 oz small diced smoked bacon

1 oz port wine

1 oz brown sauce

1 oz diced green onions

Crushed black pepper

Kosher salt

Sauté bacon in 2 quart sauce pot until  ¾ done.  Add barley and sauté for 1 more minute. Add port wine, brown sauce, pepper and salt. Simmer for about 3-4 minutes – until thick. Turn heat off and add green onions.

>>>>Note – This would be a great place to use a wild game stock or demi-glace – check out Hank Shaw’s. That is basically what chef Mark Owsley is doing here<<<<

Brown Sauce

¼ cup butter

¼ cup flour

2 cups of water

3 beef bouillon cubes

Melt butter, add flour to make roux and cook for 4 minutes. Add water stirring constantly. Add bouillon and stir dissolved. Simmer 5 minutes until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If more flavor is needed you can add more beef bouillon if needed.