Last weekend I was fortunate to spend some peaceful time tapping Wisconsin maple trees in preparation for another year’s batch of liquid gold (more on that in next week’s blog). While I was there, I stumbled onto a backyard farm pond full of largemouth bass. As luck would have it, my ice-fishing gear was in my truck and the pond owner, Darrell Horn, wanted some bass cleared out to help his bluegill population recover from years of plundering by the voracious bigmouths.
Here’s a look at that great morning of fishing, along with tips for catching bass through the ice and a blackened fish recipe to prepare their tasty fillets.
In the heart of Wisconsin’s dairy country, Clark Delzer drills holes in his grandpa’s frozen stocked farm pond with fingers crossed that we can hook into a few fish. It’s Sunday, and echoing from the distance is the clip-clop of horses pulling Amish buggies to church. We’ll attend service, too, but with short rods and sharp hooks under a tremendous winter sunrise.
The action is instant. I drop my line to the bottom, reel up a couple of revolutions and begin jigging. A big bass crushes my lure and I pull it through the ice. Amidst uncontrollable laughter, I boastfully share my optimistic prediction for the morning’s ultimate outcome: “We’re gonna hammer ’em!” My bass turned out to be the biggest of the day. I threw the fish back, my instincts automatically deferring to a catch-and-release “trophy” bass mentality. Later that day, Darrell told me he was watching the scene from his kitchen window. “Why didn’t you keep that big one?” he asked. I explained that I wasn’t sure if he wanted us to put the bigger fish back into the pond. “No!” he said, shaking his head. “The big ones produce the most spawn. Those are the ones I really want taken out of there.” Dang. Those would’ve been nice fillets.
My prediction for this ice bite was spot on. Moments later, Clark rips another bass from beneath the hard water after a thrilling fight. “I can’t believe this,” he says in awe, quickly dropping his lure back into the hole for another round.
A huge key to our success on the ice was the Humminbird Ice Helix 5. This little unit is a powerhouse, filled with features including a built-in GPS, water mapping, and the most useful feature for catching finicky fish through the ice: a digital flasher. A common and effective technique for getting fish to bite is to drop your lure—in my case during this trip, a silver and gold spoon—to the bottom, then bring it up a couple of feet while jigging. The entire time, you can see the lure on the flasher. If there are active fish within the cone of the sonar, you’ll see them appear on the screen somewhere around your lure. It seems most times the fish will appear below your lure, at which point you should start jigging and raising your lure. If the fish follows your lure, it will either attack while you’re jigging or sometimes a sudden stop will trigger the bite. No doubt, this Humminbird unit helps you catch more fish—especially the light biters, which are common.
For over an hour, we pulled up bass and threw them on the ice with a later meal on our minds. My lady, Samina Ahmed, set the hook on her first-ever iced largemouth; while she was wrangling it, Clark doubled with her to put a perfect cap on a perfect morning.
Nine tasty bass were ready for the cutting board. Largemouths often get a bad rap as not being fit for a pan, but those words are made of lies. Just like with any fish, there’s an ideal “eater” size and you don’t want to eat bass that are too big (for flavor and toxin reasons). I will say, however, fish taken through the ice always seem to taste better than open-water fish. If you think about the consistency of fish, it makes sense: cold means firm, warm means mush. Nobody likes mush.
Time for work. A sharp knife always makes life so much easier. The Work Sharp Guided Sharpening System is a sweet tool to keep at the filleting table. It allows you to hone a precision edge while enjoying a safer, more productive fish-cleaning session.
A RECIPE FOR BLACKENED FISH
Frying fish in breading such as Shore Lunch seems to be the most common go-to preparation for freshwater fillets. No doubt, it’s an awesome way to go. But if you’re a fan of a little kick and a lot of flavor, try blackening your fish. Blackening also works well for those who want to kill some of the “fishiness” (if there’s such a thing) from particular catches.
Blackened Seasoning Ingredients
(covers approx. 1 pound fish)
1 teaspoon oregano, ground allspice, ground cayenne pepper, ground white pepper, fine ground coffee
3 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoon dried minced onions, garlic salt, dried thyme leaves, granulated sugar
First of all, this is an excellent recipe for authentic shore lunch—cooked outside—because it’s … well … smoky. If you’re inside, use your stove hood or open the windows and flip on a fan or three before you fire it up.
Heat a cast-iron skillet to medium-high. It’s probably ready when the skillet starts to let off some smoke. (It might take one blackening session to dial-in the perfect heat setting on your cooking surface; when you do, mark it for future reference.) Melt enough butter in a bowl to coat all your fish, plus extra for a later step. Soak cold fish pieces in butter, and then dredge each piece thoroughly in the blackened seasoning. For dredging, I recommend spreading the seasoning out across a large flat surface (such as a sheet pan), because you’ll get a much more even coating of the seasoning vs. doing it in a bowl. Add seasoned fish pieces to the hot skillet and immediately pour more about a tablespoon of melted butter over each piece. Cook on the first side for approximately 1.5-2 minutes depending on thickness, flip and pour more butter over the fish, and finish with another 1.5-2 minutes of heat. (Don’t ever touch the fish or move it around the pan!)
This is one of the few times you can get away with “burning” your food, but I promise the finished result will taste blessed, not burnt. Boom. Blackened. Eat.