August 23, 2022
By M.D. Johnson
When I was 10 years old, my dad and dzedo (Slovak for grandfather) took me to Canada to fish for big walleyes, northern pike and lake trout. As a boy, the entire trip was better than anything I could have dreamed, even when I was told the crystal clear water I'd been swimming in was home to countless leeches.
Didn't bother me a bit.
But the best part of the trip, bar none, came at noon each day when, after a morning of trolling Johnson Silver Minnows, crankbaits and Flatfish, Dzedo would beach our small, 14-foot rental skiff on some remote stretch of beach and, while I continued to cast from the sand, orchestrate the absolute best lunch … perhaps in the history of lunches. After working a mountain of sliced potatoes into the culinary equivalent of gold, he'd fry lightly breaded walleye and pike fillets in a huge cast-iron skillet over red-orange coals.
When it was ready, he'd holler my name. My pop would be there, paper plates and forks in hand, and it was always the same routine. With a smile, Dzedo would nod at the old steel-belted cooler at his side. "You know, son," he'd say. "There might be something in there for you."
Inside I'd find an ice-cold 7-Up waiting, the perfect accompaniment to the perfect meal in the ultimate setting—the great outdoors. That was 48 years ago, and I remember it all vividly; a great meal will stay with you a long time. And Dzedo had the touch, for it's an art to concoct the perfect shore lunch. Golden fish fillets, the breading done just right and the meat flaky and hot inside. The spuds browned expertly, with the proper ratio of crunch-to-tender. Not everyone can do it like he did, but with practice any angler can put together a knockout shore lunch sure to please the most discriminating palate.
Location, Location, Location
For the past five years, I've worked summers as a wild-land firefighter, part of a strike team putting out fires started innocently enough by folks looking to enjoy a fresh, hot meal outdoors. I mention this because the first step to the perfect shore lunch is setting up in a spot where there is no risk of starting a wildfire. And if there's an area burn ban in effect, don't even bother.
Even if the fire danger is low, you'll still want to clear the area where you intend to start the fire and surround it with a nonflammable material like sand or rock. Also, be sure to have water and an entrenching tool at hand in the event you need to rapidly extinguish a fire. When the meal is finished, be sure to soak and stir the coals until they are cold to the touch before moving on.
No one enjoys picking around bones, let alone choking on one, so be sure to have the tools necessary to produce perfectly boneless fillets. As part of my standard cooking kit (see below), I pack two fillet knives—a 7-inch and an 8-inch—along with a ceramic sharpener to maintain an edge, especially if I'm dealing with rough-scaled species like walleyes that can quickly dull a blade.
The exception I make to my filleting philosophy concerns panfish. With these, I simply remove the head and innards, scale thoroughly (an ordinary butter knife makes a great scaler) and rinse well. What's left can then be lightly breaded and fried whole. The dorsal fin easily pulls free of the body, and the delicious, flaky flesh separates gently with a fork. Done this way, even small panfish stay moist.
Putting It All Together
Before you start the fish, dump a heap of sliced potatoes, diced bacon and onions in a separate skillet and cook until the potatoes are golden brown. Once done, place the skillet near the fire to stay warm.
When it comes to the best oil for frying fish, many swear by peanut oil, though it can be difficult to find at times. For my dollar, I prefer canola oil, which has a high, forgiving smoke point of 425 degrees (the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke, lose its stability and become too hot to properly fry fish).
So, what is the ideal temperature for frying fish? Once your oil reaches 350 to 375 degrees, it’s go time. Any cooler than that and the fish soaks up too much oil, becoming greasy; much hotter, and the fish will burn. You’ll want a good deep-fry thermometer on hand to monitor the oil temp.
Every angler has his or her favorite fish fry breading. My wife, Julia, makes her own—a tasty blend of flour, cornmeal, paprika, salt, pepper, powdered milk, turmeric, baking powder and other items she won't divulge. Don't have a DIY breading recipe? There are plenty of good ones on the grocery shelves. As for how to apply that breading, I like to keep it simple. First, I give a fillet a quick dip in milk, egg or a mixture of the two, allowing the excess to drip off. Then it goes into a zip-top bag containing my breading. After a light shake, I allow the coating to set for a minute or so.
You want your fish to finish a golden brown, which typically means leaving them in the oil for 3 to 5 minutes, flipping only once. And don't be in a hurry and overload the skillet. Too many fillets at once will cause a sudden and dramatic decrease in oil temperature, resulting in a stack of greasy fillets. Once the fillets are done, lift them carefully with a slotted spoon and allow them to drain briefly before placing them on a paper towel.
Then, it's a simple matter of serving up the fish and home fries, dropping a dollop of coleslaw onto the plate and diving into one of the best meals known to man.
The Ultimate Shore Lunch Kit
What to pack to concoct the perfect waterside meal.
The equipment I use to prepare a shore lunch is neither extensive nor fancy. Below is a list of what I carry in a tote, but feel free to adapt to your needs and whims.
- Two Griswold 9 cast-iron skillets
- Canola oil in a 1-liter water bottle
- Containers of salt, pepper, garlic and Old Bay Seasoning in a gallon-size zip-top bag that doubles as my shaker bag
- Onion, 3 or 4 potatoes and bacon (kept in a cooler until needed)
- 4-inch camp knife for preparing onions, potatoes and bacon
- 7- and 8-inch Dexter fillet knives and Firestone ceramic sharpener
- Butter knife
- 9-by-12-inch cutting board