Author’s Note: While I am working up a new essay, I thought I would share an old one from September 2011 that I recently reworked and expanded with the help of Amy Milligan, editor extraordinaire of The Spleen (www.the-spleen.com). If you live in a cold, gray and/or otherwise miserable part of the world, this one is a taste of summer. Enjoy. And be sure to click on the outstanding clip of Simone Perrin at the end. Happy New Year.
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 hedged by honeysuckle and lilac 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 sandlot, caught flies that made either butter or fire, and captured frogs that I sold to a bait shop for fifty cents a dozen, a princely sum. In the winter we skated on frozen ponds and hurled balls made of snow.
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. I grew up in the mid-sixties, when 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.
And then there were the summers, filled with tornadoes and thunderstorms that would shake, rattle, and roll a house right down to its foundation. One year, my best friend’s home received a direct hit from 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 Goddard. 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.
Over the years, I have fished in all kinds of water. Lakes and ponds, oceans, seas, and Sounds. I have fished in waters salty and fresh, still and moving. Any water holding fish that can be caught with a rod and reel is good by me. But I love a river. If you watch and listen, if you tune in, a river gives up her secrets, no underwater radar gizmo necessary. That bend along the undercut bank, that’s where the current has carved a deep cold hole. A little soft water seam next to a hard current where dirty foam swirls? That is a fishy version of the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. A sloping rocky shoreline can mean a crawfish ecosystem of epic proportions, crawfish being the Snickers bar of the fish diet. A river tells a story – but you must watch.
At the Goddard farm, we fished a hole where a set of rotted pilings driven into the bottom near the shore hinted at a story that spilled a secret. Sixty years previous those pilings anchored a dock where steam powered paddle boats would pick up produce grown in the fertile local fields for easy transport downstream to Minneapolis and St. Paul. With paddleboats long replaced by internal combustion vehicles, the pilings no longer served a purpose, but they kept a secret. There, right against the shore, was a depression in the riverbed deep enough to dock a large boat. This kind of drop off, especially near shore, is exactly where smallmouth bass like to school. At the upstream ledge of the drop, the current slows, not only making it easier for the fish to fin against, but depositing food at their doorstep. At this underwater cafeteria, leeches, minnows, crawfish, worms and aquatic bugs of all sorts drop out of the current, helpless to the carnivorous smallmouth below. It is the riverine equivalent of a basement barcalounger stocked with an endless supply of Cheetos.
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 — night crawlers, usually — and when those ran out, we would turn over river rocks and snatch crawfish bare-handed, which the smallmouth seemed to prefer even more.
Smallmouth bass are bareknuckle brawlers. If you are ever in an underwater bar fight, you want a smallmouth as your wingman. I grew up assuming that all fish were passionate and would jump out of the water repeatedly to try to spit the hook out of their mouth that you had planted with a hard set when your bobber dove. A smallmouth will run and roll and will strip the line off your reel. Bear down too hard and they will break your line. Or, they will find a submerged log, wrap you around a sunken limb and snap you off. If you fish for smallmouth, over time, you learn not to cry when the big one gets away.
I don’t remember a single day of fishing at the Goddard’s that wasn’t sunny and hot, and when the bite would go off around midday, my father would send me up the bank with a dime to buy two bottles of cold pop from the machine in the Goddard’s farm office – an Orange Crush for me and a 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 bubblegum cards, any one of which might contain a coveted Twin: 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 pulled over 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 beneath an ancient weeping willow, my father would fillet the fish, expertly carving off boneless slabs of smallmouth meat. My job, until I learned to fillet myself, was to shuck the corn, a task I took on with all the actual relish that Tom Sawyer only pretended to while whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. If there is any job more satisfying than shucking cobs of sweet corn, I don’t know what it is. I shucked for sheer pleasure, not for speed, peeling off long green leaves one at a time and then silk strands until a nubbly, naked cob was revealed. Normally insistent on higher levels of efficiency, my Dad let me take my time with this job. It was 1967 and I was seven years old. There was no hurry.
We always ate the fish the same day they were caught, and we always cooked them the same way: dipped in an egg wash, dredged in saltine cracker crumbs, and fried in hot oil. The corn I shucked was boiled briefly in salted water, then slathered with butter and sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper. We had tartar sauce that my mother made at home with 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, especially one you caught fresh from the big river.
But everything changes, even rivers. There is a saying that you 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 Goddard’s smallmouth hole where I grew up and found that the 10-foot deep-hole that once harbored seemingly limitless schools of smallmouth 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 downstream, another hole has been carved, and some new kid keeps watch while floating a bobber over an underwater ledge in the hopes 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. I fish for torpedo-like trout with impossibly small flies and almost always I throw them back, convinced that the catching can continue only if we stop killing so many. But I know a fresh-looking fish when I see it, and sometimes I can’t resist. Smallmouth bass has never been preferred out here in the West, not commercially or for sport, 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. It’s not so bad, I have to admit.
As for favored preparation, I haven’t ventured all that far from home. Since moving to salty shores, I have become exceedingly fond of halibut. Like smallmouth, halibut is white and flaky, with a clean, sweet flavor. People dress it up with glazes and marinades and fancy salsas, but for me, a simple preparation that allows the flavor of the fish to come through is best. 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 bread crumbs
Italian flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Finely grated parmesan cheese
Mix together the panko, parsley, and parmesan (P3).
Dip the halibut in the milk, 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 and 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 jalapeño peppers, red bell peppers, sweet onion, garlic, cumin, lime, and canola oil. Or my Mother’s Minnesota-style potato salad.
This would be great with a nearly frozen bottle of bargain-priced Saint-Véran wine, from the Mâcon region in Burgundy. Best served outdoors at sunset, at the end of a hot day.
And now listen up as chick-i-doodle Simone Perrin yoddles a Hank Williams river song.