Summer in Northern Michigan means time on the water and, for me, a relentless pursuit of what swims beneath. Whether drifting crawler harnesses for moody, elusive walleye, casting tiny dry flies to rising brook trout or baiting hooks as my daughters pull bandit-striped perch from blue-green inland lakes, the North is this fisherman’s nirvana. Apart from meditative sunsets on a wild trout stream or the exhilarating tug of a big pike on the line, catching and cooking fish from our local waters is, for me, a way of connecting with my landscape and my family.
Having family in the gourmet food business certainly helps. Should I need a fish spatula or a jar of preserved lemons or advice on olive oil poaching, I call Suzanne Acharya, my mother, a lifelong culinarian, chef and proprietress of Charlevoix’s Esperance, a specialty food and wine emporium and sometimes restaurant. Knowing her weakness for fresh fish and her granddaughters, I can just as easily show up with kids and a bag of fillets after a Sunday morning outing and expect to be fed.
While Mom can deftly sear diver scallops, slice sashimi or sauté Dover sole, the immediacy of eating a fresh Michigan lake trout roasted hours after it’s caught seems every bit as fine—especially when prepared with fresh herbs and early summer vegetables from the Saturday farmers market and paired with an Old Mission Peninsula pinot blanc. To spread our love of local fish on the table we team up, I the fisherman, Mom the chef, and explore how to catch and cook four fish that make up the North’s top summer table fare.
We’ll start with perch, since few would argue the sublimity of a mess of yellow bellies caught under July’s blue dome, fried crisp and consumed with summer slaw and cold lager. Both Mom and I spent our childhoods fishing for them in a little spring-fed private lake where my grandmother kept a summer cottage north of Ann Arbor, eating them dredged in cornmeal, pan-fried and dunked in ketchup or tartar sauce.
Here in the North virtually every inland lake holds a population of eating-size perch, which can be easily caught with worms or minnows under bobbers off dock-ends or on spreader rigs fished over drop-offs and weed beds in 10 to 40 feet of water. The yellow perch’s schooling nature and suicidal willingness to bite make them a great fish for kids, and their firm, faintly sweet fillets beg for the frying pan. “Perch is really best fried,” Mom says, heating avocado oil in a heavy sauté pan and mixing flour with millet and stone ground polenta. “They’re delicious dusted with seasoned flour and fried in clarified butter, but using coarse grains in your dredge really gives perch great crunch and texture.”
After a quick dip in egg wash, then flour, the thin fillets go into the hot oil flesh side down, which Mom stresses is important for aesthetics. “When cooking fish on the stovetop you always want the presentation side cooked first, when it develops that golden brown color, flip it over and fry for about a minute more.” This perch with its delectably crunchy multigrain dredge will be served with a North African-inspired yogurt and Harissa sauce, but lemon wedges and Tabasco will do just as well.
A larger—and wilier—cousin to the perch, walleye are widely regarded as one of the tastiest fish that swims and are an obsession for me as an angler. Locally they favor larger inland lakes like Lake Leelanau, Lake Charlevoix and Emmet/Cheboygan County’s Inland Waterway.
Mid-summer walleyes are best caught in low-light hours jigging night crawlers or leeches along drop-offs and deep weed edges or trolling over underwater structure with crank baits and crawler harnesses. Fish in the 15-to-19-inch range make ideal table fare, and walleye’s moist, delicate fillets lend themselves to a wide variety of preparations, though Mom prefers them roasted. “Walleye has a wonderfully delicate flavor and texture, you can simply season it with salt, pepper and lemon juice and bake it in the oven or on the grill. I like to serve it with balsamic onions, tomatoes and fresh herbs with a light grain salad and sautéed summer vegetables.”
Mom stresses that walleye fillets always be skinned, as the fish’s skin is tough to remove after cooking. She also extolls the virtue of parchment paper when cooking fish in the oven or on the grill. “I always line baking sheets with parchment as it prevents sticking and makes for easy clean-up,” Mom says, sliding perfectly cooked walleye fillets mounded with blistered cherry tomatoes and fresh parsley from the oven. “If you’re grilling the fish, make sure to line your aluminum foil with parchment as well to prevent sticking, seal in moisture and keep acids like lemon juice from reacting with the foil.”
Toothy spotted missiles that ambush their prey in weedy bays or chase them over deep-water contours, northern pike are apex predators in the North’s inland lakes and vastly underrated as table fare. While 40-plus-inch trophies are usually caught by trolling large lures or live bait over deep structure, I usually find eater pike in the 24-to-30-inch range in weed beds from five to 25 feet of water with jerk baits, spoons, big streamer flies or sucker minnows fished under a bobber.
A tenacious fighter that runs and thrashes all the way to the net, northern pike yield long, meaty fillets with thick white flakes and a delicious, mild flavor. The catch to this catch, however, is a string of sharp Y-bones that must be cut from the fillet’s center, which leaves a thick loin strip from the fish’s back and a thinner fillet from the belly. The resulting asymmetry and the pike’s firm texture lends itself to be used in classic beer-battered fish-and-chips recipes or ground into fish cakes.
Mom, however, pulls a lighter riff on the classic Escoffier “quenelles de brochet,” by turning pike into airy dumplings poached in a light fennel broth. She stresses that all fish, and especially pike, should be kept on ice before and after filleting to maintain the integrity and texture of the meat. “If you’re buying fish from a local fishery it’s very important to keep the fish on ice even in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook it. If I’m making fish dumplings like these quenelles, I’ll shock them in an ice bath and refrigerate them overnight for the best texture.”
“Lake trout was the number-one selling entrée in our restaurant,” Mom says proudly, spreading spicy sambal mayonnaise on a bright orange fillet caught near Petoskey that morning by native fishermen supplying Charlevoix’s John Cross Fishery. “These fish have beautiful texture and flavor.”
Maligned for decades as “greasers,” referring to lake trout’s fatty fillets and strong “fishy” flavor derived from its former diet of alewives, recent shifts in the Lake Michigan ecosystem have had tasty implications for this native trout, and it’s now prized fare for both fishermen and local commercial fisheries. In mid-summer, lake trout swimming in both Lake Michigan and cold, deep inland waters like Torch and Crystal Lakes relate to thermoclines or suspended bands of cold water, where they can be caught by deep trolling spoons or dodger and fly combos.
Anglers not equipped with all the necessary hardware can book charters out of port towns like Luding- ton, Frankfort and Leland, where local captains specialize in filling coolers with these delicious denizens of the deep.
Being a fatty fish, lake trout are highly perishable, and Mom stresses that fish are best when eaten the day they are caught. “If I’m buying trout from a local fishery I’ll always ask the fish monger when it was caught and smell the fillets for freshness. Fresh fish should not smell fishy, and there should still be a layer of slime on the skin side.”
Mom’s signature lake trout preparation sees the fish baked with panko almond crust and served with a fresh corn salsa, but she also likes it simply pan-seared or roasted with salt, pepper and a purée of preserved Meyer lemons in olive oil.
This Northern Michigan fishes article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.