Until I was nearly ten, I lived just blocks away from what I took for granted was the world’s greatest river, the Big Muddy itself, the Mighty Mississippi River. We lived on a spacious double lot at the intersection of two gravel streets, Sunset Drive and Cartway Road, neither of which really went anywhere. I walked across the street to school and came home for lunches of Spaghetti-O’s and bologna and butter sandwiches. In the summer I played baseball on an actual sand lot, caught flies that made either butter or fire and captured frogs that I sold to a bait shop for fifty cents a dozen.
Of course, one indulges in such nostalgia and sentiment at one’s own peril. To be sure, not everything then was rainbows and puppy dog tails. In the mid-sixties, when I grew up Kennedys and Kings were killed with alarming regularity and we were trained in school to expect and deal with nuclear holocaust by hunkering under our wooden desks. Not to mention that summers were filled with tornadoes and thunderstorms that would shake, rattle and roll a house right down to the foundation. As a matter of fact, my best friend’s home received a direct hit by not one but two twisters in a single night, an event that haunted me until my father was inspired to purchase a surplus metal army helmet to serve in lieu of a security blanket.
Still, memory speaks, as it must. For me, for those days, my memories are of a big backyard, bare feet and a river rolling past. From before the time when I could remember, my father took me fishing on the Mississippi for smallmouth bass. We fished from shore in a sweet spot just downstream from Elk River, Minnesota on property owned by family friends, Dave and Judy Godard. Dave and Judy owned and operated a daylily farm, of all the crazy things. One might ask, where have all the daylilies gone? But for such questions there are no answers.
In those days, there was no such thing as “catch and release,” except for fry deemed too small for the pan. We fished for keeps, our stringer always heaving by evening with a legal limit of beautiful bronze-backed smallmouth so heavy it was sometimes hard for me to lift. These fish were astoundingly strong and amazingly beautiful – a three-pounder would bend your rod right down to the cork handle. We fished with bait, nightcrawlers, usually or when those ran out we would turn over river rocks and snatch crawfish barehanded, which the smallmouth seemed to prefer even more.
I don’t remember fishing one day that wasn’t sunny and hot and when the bite would go off mid-day my father would send me up the bank with a dime to buy two bottles of cold pop from the machine in the Godard’s farm office, Orange Crush for me and Black Cherry for my own pop. Judy, who called me Peter Johnson (because my middle name is Peter and I am John’s son) of course never took the ten cents. “You keep that dime, Peter Johnson,” she would say. “But don’t tell your Dad.” At that time a dime purchased two packs of baseball cards, any one of which might contain a coveted Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, or Jim Kaat. But never did.
Once our limit was attained, usually by late afternoon or early in the evening, we would heave our stringer of fish up the bank and into the Buick and head on home, stopping to leave a couple of nice ones with Dave and Judy. Just down the road from the daylily farm, we stopped at Parker’s roadside vegetable stand, where we would secure a dozen ears of sweet corn for a dollar, a real splurge. This Minnesota August corn was, I guarantee you, the best damn corn in the world.
After photographs in the backyard, my father would filet the fish, expertly carving off boneless slabs of smallmouth meat. My job, until I learned to filet myself, was to shuck the corn, a task I took on with all the relish of Tom Sawyer whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. If there is a job more satisfying than shucking cobs of sweet corn, I still don’t know what it is.
We always ate fish the same day as they were caught and we always cooked them the same way – dipped in an egg wash, dredged in cracker crumbs and fried in hot oil. The corn I shucked was boiled briefly, then slathered with butter and sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper. We had tartar sauce made at home from Miracle Whip and sweet pickle relish. Most Minnesotans are raised with the belief that walleye is the king of all fish and I will grant that walleye is terrific, as is the noble crappie. But for my money, you can’t beat a smallmouth bass, fresh caught yourself from the big river.
As they say though, things change, even rivers. There is a saying that you can never visit the same river twice, and in my experience this has considerable veracity. A number of years ago, as an adult, I went back with rod in hand to the smallmouth hole where I grew up and found that the 10-foot deep hole that once harbored seemingly limitless schools of bass had filled completely with silt. The river has its way. There are no means to stop it and no sense in shedding tears over it. Somewhere else downstream another hole has been carved and some new kid keeps watch over a floating bobber in the hope that a fish will bite. That’s life, as it has always been.
These days, while I still fish a fair amount, I hardly ever eat the fish I catch. Most of the time, I throw them back, believing that the catching can continue only if we stop killing so many. But I know a fresh looking fish when I see it and can’t resist. Somehow, smallmouth bass has never become commercially preferred here out West, so one must make do in these parts with such species as halibut, salmon, and black cod, not to mention clams, oysters, crab and mussels.
As for preparation, I haven’t ventured all that far from home. My favorite halibut dish owes a huge tip of the cap to my father’s smallmouth. I call it Halibut P3 and it goes a little something like this:
Japanese panko crumbs
Italian flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Finely grated parmesan cheese
Mix together the Panko, Parsely and Parmesan (P3).
Dip the halibut in the milk and then dredge in the P3 mixture. Let it sit awhile.
In a cast iron pan, fry the crusted halibut in very hot canola oil until golden brown on the outside, but just cooked through on the inside. Be careful not to overcook. Serve with lemon wedges.
With this I like to serve a black bean and fresh corn salsa that includes cilantro, diced jalapeno peppers, red bell peppers, sweet onion, garlic, cumin, lime and canola oil.
This would be great with a nearly-frozen bottle of bargain-priced Saint Veran wine from the Macon region in Burgundy. Best served at sunset outdoors at the end of a hot day.