Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Pan Fried Sunfish

Growing up in what is called "The Brainerd Lakes Area," I really had no idea how spoiled I was when it came to the ease of obtaining a meal of fresh fish. People there fish mostly for walleye, crappie, bass, trout and sunfish. Some of which require patience, time and a willingness to go home empty handed.

I've always preferred to sit cross legged on the end of the dock for an hour and walk home to fry up a mess of little sunnies. Small sunfish taste best and are easiest cooked whole after a brief cleaning.

I hadn't done this since I was a kid, so it was one of the few things on my wish list for last week's vacation on the waters of Brainerd, Wisconsin and Duluth. We just got a super sweet 17 foot Alumacraft and we've been putting it to good use!

South Long Lake southeast of Brainerd (my childhood home)

Heading to Buckhorn State Park through the rolling hills of Wisconsin

This photo was taken near the fire pit at our insanely beautiful campsite at Buckhorn State Park

Spring Lake northeast of Duluth

Most of our sunfish for this meal were caught with nothing but a cane pole, a worm and a hook. The fish clean up easy and fry up in just a few minutes. Eating the fish off the bone can be daunting at first, but I've been doing it since before I can remember and my 8 year old dug in like a pro! Besides the very good eats, the best part really is the good feeling of catching your own dinner. Good stuff.

Pan Fried Sunfish:

First you have to catch them! Little sunnies prefer worms and are usually found in the dark shallow waters off a dock near the edge of a docked pontoon, for example. Any healthy looking sunfish the size of a small adult hand or bigger is a keeper. I also keep fish that may be a little smaller if they've swallowed the hook in such a way that they will die if I throw them back.

You will need a scaling board and a scaler (or the edge of a metal spoon is said to work too).

Prepare a big bowl of cold water and a separate bowl for the garbage (guts and stuff). Use a board with a clamp on one end for holding the tail. Using a very sharp knife, cut off the head quickly, just below the tiny fin on the side below the gills. Using your pointer finger, remove the guts from the cavity. This will only take a second-they come out pretty clean. Where I come from, if you see an orange egg sack, save it and fry it up along with your fish-yum!

Remove scales quickly and gently from the whole fish, scraping against the grain (from tail to head) being careful not to tear the skin. When the guts and scales are all cleaned off the fish, swish the fish around in your cold water to clean it and leave it in there while you clean the other fish.

When they're all done, give the fish another good wash especially around the fins and cavity with cold water (you can do this in the sink in the house). Dispose of the guts away from the house to avoid animals and odors. Way out in the woods or triple bagged in the trash.

Prepare a bowl of enough milk to wet the fish. Prepare a bowl of flour and cornmeal at a ratio of about 5 parts flour and 3 parts cornmeal. Add a generous amount of salt and pepper and other seasoning to taste, such as Lawry's, lemon pepper, grill mix, red pepper flakes or ground cayenne.

Heat cast iron pans a notch or two over medium heat with an inch of flavorless oil (such as canola or peanut). Your pan is ready when you flick the tiniest drop of water in it and it sputters violently. Another trick is to stick the tip of a wooden spoon handle in the oil and if it sizzles, it's ready (this won't burn your spoon).

One fish at a time, coat with milk, drain, then coat with the flour mix and drop them gently into the oil until your pan is full of fish in a single layer. Flip the fish only once, when the color on the bottom is a dark golden brown. When the whole fish is the color you desire, remove from the pan onto paper towels and keep under a large towel or foil while you fry the rest.

Serve with salt, pepper, and fresh lemon wedges.

This process is personal. There are many ways to eat a pan fish.

After nibbling the crispy fins tips (my favorite) peel the top and bottom fins off, keeping the bones they're attached to intact. Using your fork, carefully pick the top fillet off the bones and eat as you go. Once the ribs and backbone are all exposed and cleaned of meat, peel the ribs and spine off the bottom filet from head to tail and set the bones aside. You will be left with a perfect bottom filet on your plate.

If you are interested in eating the whole egg sacks, toss them in milk and the flour mix and into the hot pan, turning for a brief minute. Don't over cook. Remove them when they are a paler shade of gold than the fish. Sprinkle with salt and pop them in your mouth when they're just cool enough to handle.

Enjoy this summer time treat!


  1. Great post and photos! I used to fish for blue gill off the dock when I was a child. It was so much fun!

    1. Thanks Tessa! We are both lucky that we still live near enough to the water. I'm definitely planning to do some fishing this summer!


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