Rugged Tips for Rugged Trips!
When I dropped the very first piece of fresh-caught walleye into the hot oil, you could hear the sizzle all the way to Kalamazoo, Michigan. You could smell it all the way to Tokyo... but I was in Manitoba. Okay, I might be stretching it just a wee bit, but not too much.
Since the early days of Canadian fishing trips, especially, fly-in fishing trips, the shore lunch has been a big part of the whole experience. You must realize that if you’re guiding, many of your customers have never experienced such a thing... catching some fish and then pulling into shore to cook them over an open fire. Most people have to buy their fish from a store, and then they cook it at home on their electric stove. There are few things more Canadian than the shore lunch, but if people are paying for the service, it must be done right. And, there’s a lot to it.
The first consideration is where you are going to perform this shore lunch. I use the word perform for a reason. I like to get the message across that we are putting on a performance to some degree. If I was cooking a shore for just myself and a couple of my friends who have already had many shore lunches, I’d do a little scaled down version compared to when I’m guiding some people from Indiana or Texas who are paying good money for their vacation. If I do a shore lunch for myself, it’s because I want to eat. If I’m doing a shore lunch for paying customers, I’m doing it not just because they want to eat, but for the complete “Canadian experience.”
As far as location, try to find a site that is easy to get in and out of, and I’m referring to both landing the boat and for your customers getting in and out of the boat. There’ll be no dock, so if you have anyone with special needs or physical limitations, (someone with a bad knee or hip) find a place that is not likely to cause a customer to fall. And, try to find a place that gives a bit of “Canadian eye candy.” Beside a swamp would not do... if you can find a site with a nice view of the lake, out of the wind, you’re golden!
Now, we have to prepare the site. Again, keeping in mind that your customers are paying for this service, let’s do it up right! You can’t expect your people to stand while they’re eating, or sit down on the ground or on some rocks... I’m in good health, don’t have a bad knee, nor have I had recent hip surgery and I wouldn’t like that. So, build some type of simple table and seats, even a bench will do. Your customers should be able to sit comfortably while eating their lunch.
For the cooking area itself, it should be semi-permanent so that when you arrive at the site it’s organized and equipped... and you’ll be ready to cook. Have a solid grill over the fire and make it level. I’ve seen a few frying pans tip over and end up in flames. Funny, maybe, but not so good if you are hungry. Next have a small “cook’s table” low to the ground and right beside the fire pit. You’ll be able to move this to either side of the pit depending on wind that can blow ashes and smoke in your face.
Your cooking vessels (pots and pans) should reflect the image that the Canadian shore lunch brings to us. Old beat up Teflon pans that you’d see at a yard sale for $1.00 have no place in a guide’s lunch kit. Nor do partially melted plastic spatulas. Think of the equipment that was used “back in the day.” Cast iron pans are traditional, look great and excellent to cook on. They hold the heat well and your fish and spuds will be amazing. Again, old pots and pans look well... um... rugged! And, traditional. Buy one with a long handle too. They look great and will also save you from burning or “de-hairing” your hands and arms.
Now we’ll take a look at the actual cooking part of the deal which is all about the food, or shall I say the star of the performance. All things aside, the site you choose and how you set it up, the gear you use, looking “old time” and all... well, the food must taste good. Sorry, not just good, but great!
The most common fish used for shore lunches in Canada is the walleye. First, it is plentiful in most regions of the country, but it’s also one of the best eating fish there is, period. It’s light, mild, sweet and super easy to fillet. But, many other types of fish will also shine on the shore lunch. Many people prefer trout or whitefish for example. Not me... I’m a walleye guy.The first job is the cleaning of the fish. I don’t care how you do it, but make sure that every single bone is out of that fillet! We don’t want one of your guests choking, obviously, but there’s more to it than that. Let’s say one of your guests takes a bite of fish and discovers a small bone or two. No big deal right? Wrong and here’s why. Each bite he takes after that he’ll be more concerned about finding more bones than “plowing right into ‘er” and enjoying his lunch. Bones – Gone!
For the cooking aspect, there are a bunch of ways of cooking fish over an open fire, but for this article, we’ll go with the standard issue shore lunch – frying. There’s not a lot to it really, just a few solid tips that will give you a better chance of pulling off a great performance. Rule one for frying fish in oil is to choose the correct type of oil. Canola oil is a good choice, maybe the best. One, it’s one of the more inexpensive oils and saving money is always a good thing. But, more importantly, Canola oil has a high smoke point and it can handle the heat of an outdoor cooking fire. If you can’t get Canola oil, both sunflower oil and vegetable will work well too.
Next – temperature. You must get the oil hot enough... at least 375 degrees F. If you’re not sure how hot that is, you could bring along a cooking thermometer, but after a little bit of experience you’ll just know how hot is hot enough. Of course if it’s too hot, you’ll burn your fish and maybe even start an awesome camp fire instead. We don’t want either of those things to happen. A good idea for inexperienced cooks is to slowly begin to place a piece of fish into the oil and if it doesn’t sizzle like a SOB, take it out and wait.
Once the fish is boneless, cut any thicker fillets in half so they are thinner. They’ll cook faster that way. Seriously, if the oil is hot enough and you don’t overcrowd the pan, the fish should cook in less than two minutes, easily. Be aware though, that even if your oil is hot when you start, the temperature of it will drop some after you start dropping cold pieces of fish into it. The cold fish will cool down the hot oil.
Many guides claim to have their “secret recipes” for frying fish for shore lunch, but really, how secret can they be? I’m sure I’ve heard them all by now and they’re all basically variations of each other. The fish is what makes it great... Using a dry mixture is the way to have some very happy campers during lunch. Here’s an “always works” recipe that’s simple and believe me, not-so-secret either. Mix equal parts of bread crumbs, flour and corn meal. Even just flour and corn meal will work. Flour and bread crumbs give it some depth of texture and the corn meal gives it a little crunch. But these dry ingredients don’t add any flavor. So, add whatever flavors you like, be it, lemon pepper seasoning, oregano, basil, garlic powder... the list goes on. Put your wet fillets in a bag with the mixture and shake it up.
Most times fried potatoes are part of the standard issue shore lunch. Good call... but, there is some technique involved if you plan to, once again, pull off a great performance. If you just take raw potatoes, slice them up and drop them into the hot fat, they’ll be burned on the outside and raw on the inside, and basically a big greasy mess. Here’s the trick... fully cook your potatoes in advance. The night before is fine. Baking is best, but boiling will do. And, leave the skins on. This way the spuds will already be cooked and just need to be crisped up a little. They’ll be in and out of that oil in two minutes. When you remove the spuds from the oil, place them on some paper towel and right away hit them with some seasoning. Salt and pepper, dry oregano, basil, parsley and garlic powder are sure bets to make you famous! You’ll get the occasional marriage proposal too...
Other standards can include canned beans, corn or even carrots. These extras in my opinion are just that – extras. The fish and spuds are the real attraction. Another “extra” I like to do is garnish the plate. Make it look great! Many restaurant consultants will tell you that people will decide that something tastes great with their eyes – before they take even one single bite. I’ll add a slice of tomato and a wedge of lemon sitting on a leaf of green lettuce. You’ll be impressed with your own performance...
Finally, why put all of this effort into your performance, and then hand your people a paper plate? And, why would you go through all that extra work and then hand them a plastic knife and fork? Again, think traditional... I use some old time aluminum or tin plates (cowboy plates) that have that rustic “shore lunch” look to them. Believe me, this is what your guests are expecting, especially if it’s their first shore lunch in Canada. Along with some tea or coffee brewing on the fire, (in an old beat up and rustic kettle or pot) this meal would be a “feast fit for a King.”
A couple final things to think about... just because you’re cooking food on the shore of a lake in the middle of nowhere and not in a restaurant in the city doesn’t mean you don’t have to think about safe food handling and hygiene. Before you start, wash your hands! In fact, make sure your guests actually see you washing up. They’ll be impressed. And, if you’re bringing cooked potatoes out on the lake with you, keep them in a small cooler with ice. If you ever take a safe food handling course you’ll be taught that in order to keep bacteria from taking hold, you must keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. That includes cooked potatoes. A young kid died in Canada last year because he ate a baked potato that was left on the counter overnight.
The bottom line is that people you guide are your customers and they are paying a lot of money for your services. Go all out and put on a great performance for your guests. Don’t be surprised if you get a standing ovation.
To begin planning your next Canadian excursion, visit our Adventure Match to find the perfect lodge to suit your personal fishing or hunting preferences.
Author Bio: RD Carson - The "Rugged Dude" is a Canadian television personality and award winning writer. He lives a very self-sufficient lifestyle and most of what he eats comes from the land. And yes, "Rugged Dude" is his legal name. For more articles from RD, visit his website here!
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