Easter week, I had the chance to spend six days and nights upstate New Jersey, enjoying (occasional) quite time, daily freshwater fishing, and at least three nice meals of fresh-caught lake fish.
I took John McPhee's advice from the New Yorker a few months back, and tried pickerel for the first time. I know that March is their spawning time, so threw back at least one that seemed to have a lump (eggs?), and, taking the advice written, stuck to only smaller fish, which supposedely.... well, something to do with the bones.
Fileting the first one or two (probably kept about five the whole trip, including one perch, which wasn't worth it), I saw what he meant. Within each filet are tiny, hair-sized white bones that no matter how much you try, you can't really remove. I did this: kept the fish whole, didn't even scale them, took the knife in from the tail forward, working as close to the spine as possible. Sometimes I picked up an amount of bone along the way. No worries, just cut if off later on. One you have the two filets cut off, put them skin-side down, see what your sharp, flexible knife can really do, and remove the skin in (hopefully) one piece. Afterward, go to the bones. The best way is to find the ridge of bones, slice in a V-shape and remove them. For pickerel, there will always be some of the smaller bones left. I removed as many as possible, and got to the point where I went from whole, untouched fish, to boneless, skinless filets in just a few minutes, maybe three.
As a bonus and from prior experiences where the fileting didn't quite go so smoothly, I usually do my filet work outside, with a bowl or pot full of ice to put the filets in, keeping everything icy fresh. Also, a cold beer chillin' right there will do the trick.
In the end, did an egg wash, dipped into salted cornmeal, fried in cannola oil until brown. Salt and pepper on right after frying, and that's it. As for the small bones - they cook away; you'll forget they were ever there.
Another night, I made a bouillabaisse from an Emeril Louisianna cookbook that I received recently as a gift. I heard all this talk, bouillabaisse is hard to make, all those ingredients. I think the Times had something on it. But what I liked about the recipe was that it was simple and called for any kind of freshwater fish - 2 1/2 pounds of it. I threw in one or two measily pickerel filets we caught earlier that day, and also a package of Mahi Mahi I'd had frozen for who knows how long, and got that puppy going. Absolutely. Delicious.
My brother hooked two significant pickerel, I hooked one myself but between us and another lake friend, we probably brought about 15 fish into the boat, despite wind that at times was absurd. Night fishing wasn't there yet, and I'm convinced that will remain classic summer rowboat action. Even in the fall, it's never paid off for me.
Finally, when the wind did die down, I took the new fly pole I picked up and managed to rig, and practiced casting on the open water. Went very well, happy to say. I had picked up all the gear (with the exception of the pole and reel itself) from the local Wal-Mart and in the lake bait shop, got my first taste for some of the wonderful, not cheaply priced, fun stuff you can really go nuts if you delve into this sport entirely. Which I might just have to do.