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.
“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.
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.
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.