Northern Michigan outdoorsman and cook Keefer Edwards offers up some of his favorite dishes, honored over years roaming the lakes and forest of his childhood backyard in Glen Arbor.

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Put a pin in the center of a map of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and it might very well land in my Glen Arbor kitchen. If not precisely geographically, at least metaphorically—especially when my 20-something son, Keefer, brings in fresh lake trout from Sleeping Bear Bay, bluegill from one of the many inland lakes nearby and venison from deer who spent their lives grazing on Alligator Hill, the alligator-shaped ridge I can see out my kitchen window. And from that hill, too, come morels, chanterelles and other edible fungi.

Keef grew up fishing, hunting and foraging in this bounteous parkland, and then bringing it all home to cook in my kitchen. From as young as 8 years old, he’d fire up the cast iron skillet that always sits on my stove and throw in whatever it was he had brought back that day—treating himself to open season on my spice drawer, pantry and refrigerator for extra ingredients.

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Eventually, Keef became a whole-beast kind of guy—which means I’ve had antlers peeking out of my pasta pot (he took pity and bought me a new one), a cold glass jar containing boiling hot deer tallow explode all over the kitchen … there have been more delicious mishaps, but I’ll spare you. Science experiments aside, along the way Keef has become as skilled a cook as he is a hunter and fisherman. His dream is to build a career as a fishing and hunting guide, teaching his clients how to prepare and cook what they come home with.

In the meantime, he practices on his friends—some of whom he’s known since before kindergarten, and all of whom fish and hunt with him when they can. When Keef says he’s cooking, Charlie, Jack, Austin, Spencer, Cam, Ben and others gather around my big oak counter to watch him filet, butcher, batter, fry or smoke (done in his Traeger grill on the deck), lending a hand or ingredients as the case requires. Last April, as this feast was being assembled, Keef’s friend Liam Kaiser showed up with his camera. When Keef started the meal, Liam started shooting—from lake to table.

Follow Keef on Instagram: @keef_edwards.

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Keef’s Northern Michigan Wild Dinner Menu

You can try these recipes at home whether you fish and hunt for your own protein or not.

+ Lollipop Bluegill with Fresh Herb Tartar Sauce
+ Smoked Lake Trout with Spruce Tips
+ Seared Venison and Fried Morels
+ Spring Salad Dressed with Venison and Morel Drippings

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Lollipop Bluegill Recipe

  • 1⁄2 dozen bluegill caught in School Lake, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup masa flour
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1⁄2 cup cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
  • 2 cups peanut oil for frying

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Directions | Scale all fish by scraping a knife or spoon against the scales until the fish skin is smooth on both sides from the tail to the pectoral fin. Pull the pectoral fin back and cut between it and the gill flap (located over the gills) all the way through the fish, discarding the head end of the cut. Make a slice down the belly, pull the fish open and remove the guts. Using a very sharp knife, cut along the pectoral and the dorsal fins, following the bones within the body of the fish that anchor these fins. Use pliers to remove them and the pesky little bones that are attached (these bones are the biggest nuisance when eating a traditionally gutted fish). Hold your gutted and cleaned bluegill up by the tail and you see why Keef calls it a lollipop.

Keef’s Prep Tip: The rationale for this method—an advanced version of traditional gutting—is that it’s less wasteful (much higher yield of meat) than filleting, and also results in far fewer bones to pick around in the final product. This method takes time to master, but if you hold these freshwater gems as sacred as I do, you’ll find it is worth the hassle. Go slow, and by the end of a few dozen, you’ll be flying through them.

Mix egg, masa, cornstarch, flour and spices. Add a few teaspoons of water—until the batter is the consistency of crepe batter. Heat peanut oil in a frying pan. When a drop of batter sizzles in it, it’s ready. Dredge bluegill in batter and place in oil. Bluegill fry quickly, typically two to three minutes per side at most. When the meat flakes off the bones, they are ready.

Fresh Herb Tartar Sauce Recipe

To accompany the Lollipop Bluegill recipe above.

  • 1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1⁄2 cup sour cream
  • 3 Tablespoons pickle juice
  • Half lemon, squeezed
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons (or more) each of fresh dill, basil and chives, chopped very small

Place all ingredients into a bowl and stir together. Serve with freshly fried bluegill.

Lake Trout with Spruce Tips Recipe

  • 1 lake trout, caught in Sleeping Bear Bay, using a trolling spoon on a downrigger
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1⁄4 cup butter, softened
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • 1 cup spruce tips (Keef collects these tender shoots at the tip of a spruce branch in spring from our neighbor’s yard. He says they taste of rosemary and lemon.)

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Keef’s prep tip: Have two fillet knives ready when filleting lake trout—one to use when taking the skin off, the other to use when deboning the fillet. Anytime the knife touches the outside of the skin it should never touch the meat. The slime on the skin is what gives the meat its fishy taste. This is most important for Great Lakes lake trout, though it is recommended for inland lake trout as well. If you or someone you know finds lake trout to be fishy, try this method and you may be surprised how much you enjoy it.

With the first knife, fillet the lake trout as you would any fish. Remove the skin with knife #1. Using knife #2, cut down both sides of the rib bone line and pull it out like a zipper.

Lay the fillets on sheets of aluminum foil.

Rub the fillets down with minced garlic, working it into the meat. Blend the butter, olive oil, paprika, salt and pepper. Spread on both sides of the fillets. Cover them with lemon slices and sprinkle with spruce tips. Smoke (or use an oven) at 250 degrees until the fish reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees, or until it flakes with a fork (if you do not have a temperature probe).

Seared Venison and Fried Morels Recipe

For venison:

  • 2 pounds (approximately) venison hind quarters from a deer Keef harvested on Alligator Hill, just outside of Glen Arbor the fall before this dinner
  • Salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1⁄4 cup butter
  • Fresh thyme sprigs
  • Fresh chives, chopped, for garnish

Keef’s prep tip: The cuts I used were a bottom round and a sirloin, though all cuts from the hind quarter work for this method (and so does back strap).

Thoroughly salt down the venison, set on paper towels and place in the refrigerator overnight—a method Keef says will likely transform anyone’s negative opinion of the taste of venison. The next day, rub black pepper on the venison. Heat the olive oil in a large (preferably) cast iron frying pan. Sear the venison on all sides, turn down the heat to medium and add the butter and thyme sprigs. Continually baste the venison with the butter and thyme until it is cooked to medium rare. Reserve pan drippings for spring salad recipe. Slice thinly and serve with morels. Garnish with fresh chives.

For mushrooms:

  • 2 cups morels, freshly gathered from Alligator Hill
  • 1⁄2 cup butter
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Keef’s prep tip: Do not wash morels. It yields a much better product and it is safe to do so because you are cooking them at such a high heat.

Slice morels in half. Heat the butter to bubbling in a cast iron frying pan. Add morels and cook until they are light brown—as you would other mushrooms. Salt and pepper to taste. Reserve pan drippings for spring salad recipe.

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Northern Michigan Spring Salad Recipe

  • Fresh spring greens and herbs
  • Drippings from the morel pan
  • Drippings from the venison
  • 2 Tablespoons (approximately) olive oil 
  • 2 Tablespoons (approximately) balsamic vinegar

Mix desired amount of drippings together. If they have become congealed, warm just until they liquify. Whisk in olive oil and vinegar. Toss with greens.

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Elizabeth (Lissa) Edwards is senior editor and, most important, Keef Edwards’ mom.

Liam Kaiser is a visual storyteller with a strong love for the outdoors and the grit that comes with it. Follow his adventures on Instagram @LiamKaiserCreative.

Photo(s) by Liam Kaiser