Older photo showing two young boys each holding several fish they have caught standing in front of a tree.

I grew up fishing and playing outside a lot. My cousin (left) and I would fish for hours. Somehow he’s holding one of the big bass that I actually caught in the photo, just for the record. Courtesy photo.

Lilly holding up a fish and fishing rod near a lake

Catching fish is a family tradition!

A freshwater feast is as simple and easy as: catch fish, clean fish, pan fry fish – and then eat fish while enjoying time with family. If you haven’t tried it before, this summer is a great time to start.

My love for fishing – and eventually a fisheries science career with MSU Extension‘s Michigan Sea Grant – grew out of a small farm pond in Sanilac County. Ironically, the only county in Michigan without a natural inland lake. Nonetheless, a county still rich in Great Lakes and water resources, bordering coastal Lake Huron – the third largest freshwater lake in the world, by surface area – where I surf fished, caught my first Chinook Salmon, dipped for smelt in the spring, and explored the many small creeks that feed directly into Lake Huron. I spent many hours wading in Cherry Creek behind our farm hunting spring suckers and ‘monster’ summertime creek chubs. But it was the farm pond where I would spend countless hours fishing with friends and family.

Today, I share this fishing fun with my own kids and that very same farm pond when we travel to visit grandpa. There is always time for dropping a line in the water in pursuit of the sunfish family. We make time for an opportunity to catch a mess of bluegill and pumpkinseeds, with nearly every cast, along with the largemouth bass we love to throw lures at.

While the bass go back, the other panfish end up in our creel – both catch-and-release and the harvest are purposefully part of our pond management strategy for growing larger fish that can be sustainably harvested year after year. And the fishing fun nearly always results in a tasty fish fry.

Processing and preparing the fish

brandon 1Growing up we scaled, headed, and eviscerated our catch of the day. More regularly today, we like to fillet our panfish, resulting in bite size fish nuggets – that disappear quickly once fried.

I’ve found it helpful to use paper towels to pat dry as much moisture off the fillets, which helps ensure a firm textured fish out of the frying pan. Be sure to follow best food safety practices of working on clean surfaces, rinsing, and cooling your filleted meat (and eventually cooking to proper temperatures).

The next step is always the same either way. Season and batter, fry, and enjoy.

and into the frying pan

It’s a very easy meal to prepare – and this simplicity is exactly what has allowed for so many quick and tasty meals enjoyed real-time with family, and sometimes while even still fishing. You really only need:

  • Heat source. We often just set the pan on the grill as a heat source, but just as easy a meal to prepare indoors over the stove. One could easily cook this same meal over a campfire, too.
  • Pan and frying oil. I love the crisp that comes with frying in a cast iron pan – but any pan will work. Many oil options exist, but olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil are a few of my favorites. You just need enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan – don’t full submerge or ‘deep fry’ your fish in oil.pan frying breaded filets
  • Dry batter mix, seasoned to your liking. This is where creativity counts – and we end with a slightly different batter mix nearly every time, just using what’s on hand. After all – panfish fillets from the sunfish family offer a fantastic almost sweet flavor to start with. Typically, starting with a flour base you can add breadcrumbs or corn meal for texture – and even just flour alone with some seasoning salt works great, too. You can mix seasoning of your choice (we love lemon pepper salt) into the dry batter mix, season the fish fillets before battering, and/or season the fish straight out of the frying pan.
  • Out of the batter and into the frying pan. Batter your fillets. Even the slightest remaining moisture of the fish fillet itself is plenty enough to help secure a light coat of batter mix to adhere to the fish. If a more heavily battered fish is preferred, you can dip your fillets in a whipped egg bath before battering.
  • Fry on both sides until golden brown and enjoy. These smaller panfish fillets cook through really fast, and cooking over a higher heat helps to achieve the crispy outside without overcooking the fish itself.
  • Pro tip: Best if eaten straight out of the pan and before someone else beats you to that last tasty fillet.

one bite left (002)Fishing together is a great family experience. It can be a quick trip to the nearest pond fishing off the shore or the dock, or grab a boat, munchies and beverages and head out onto the water for the day. Explore fishing education opportunities with Project F.I.S.H. – an educational program for youth and families. Also check out Michigan Department of Natural Resources fishing website to learn how and where to fish, and how to buy a license. Start a new family tradition this summer!

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 34 university-based programs.

This article was prepared by Michigan Sea Grant under award NA180AR4170102 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statement, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.