Saturday, February 27, 2016

Brownies and Whities 2/22/2016

       Even in Canada, where one man can sometimes catch three or four hundred smallmouth bass in a day if he wants to, I have never seen so many smallmouth in such a small area as we found last week as the weather began to warm. But then, it is like that every year in February and March in some of my secret places.
       My old friend Alvin Barton came up from his home near Houston, Mo. where we went to school together.  Alvin and I fished the Big Piney a lot when we were kids.  There’s a photo of us on that facebook thing under my name that Gloria Jean takes care of. Alvin and I with a big flathead catfish, which I think was as old as we were, and we were about 17.
      Alvin, who still spends lots of time after bass on the lower Big Piney and the Gasconade, knows how to fish.  He’s good at it!  We used some special jigs to haul some good-sized largemouth bass out of deep water for me to take home and use for a fish fry or two that is coming up.  But for every largemouth, there were eight or ten smallmouth caught.  And while it is fun to catch those hard fighting brownies, I never keep one.
     Alvin was good enough with a rod and reel to catch a dozen bass before I landed one… a fact that doesn’t sit well with a grizzled old outdoor veteran like me. It prompted me to comment that between the two of us, we had caught a dozen nice fish in about 15 minutes. That gave my old friend a sudden fit of laughter that allowed me to hook into my first one.
   It was a gorgeous day, and the bass fishing so good no one would have believed it, so I won’t try to describe it.  There wasn’t one fish above three pounds, but that evening we must have caught fifty smallmouth from 12 to 18 inches on light tackle and a four-inch Rebel lure. 
       At the same time, male white bass were swarming around us and one of them would often intercept our lures before a bass did.  Those little males seldom reached twelve inches in length. On one cast I landed a smallmouth on the back hooks and a white bass on the front hooks.
       It is that way with white bass at the very beginning of the spawn.  Larger males will get there eventually and then the females, which are the largest of course.  Female whites are the line stretchers everyone goes after.  They are fatter and heftier.  It is a lot the way it is at times up at the local McDonalds or Burger King when you see a couple that has been married fifteen or twenty years and the fellow is skinny enough to hide a raccoon in his overalls with him in there too, and his wife is wider than a Frigidaire. It is that way with white bass spawining runs in the spring.
       Why then would a grizzled old outdoorsman like me take home a limit of those ten-inch male white bass?  I’ll tell you why. For one thing, if I use a little whippy light rod with an ultra-lite reel and light line, they fight like tigers. But with all the fish fry dinners I have coming up this spring, they are also a great fish to use to feed lots of people.  I get in late from a day of fishing and put a cooler full of them in a basement refrigerator with ice, and the next morning I filet them. 
       You can remove the fillets off of a male white bass in seconds, and when that is done, there is only one problem left to tackle… the thin layer of red meat just beneath the skin.  On a freshly caught white bass, that layer is hard to skim off and it ruins the taste of the meat.
       But if you put the fillets in a bowl of cold water and let them sit in the refrigerator for a few hours the meat hardens and you can use an electric filet knife to skim that red layer away in a second.  What you have left is a chunk of firm, white meat that you can fry whole.
         Thirty white bass creates sixty good, delicious fillets, and one man can only eat about five or six before he is satisfied, if you have plenty of beans and potato salad to go along with it and a big platter of fudge brownies awaiting.  If you don’t tell him different, he’ll swear those fish he’s eating are fried crappie!
       When I was young, I had to clean fish where I could, and sometimes cleaning a lot of fish was a mess.  Today I have my own refrigerator-freezer in my basement. My wife won’t even walk past it, let alone open the door!  Yeah, it is a little messy inside, because it is used to cool fillets and store freshly butchered venison and wild ducks and turkeys and squirrels and rabbits and whatever else I come up with. 
       Beside it I have an eight-foot aluminum table with two big sinks and running water.  I have to run a big hose connected to the bottom of the sinks out the basement door to drain them.  With a good light over the table and a big three-foot butcher board, I clean lots of fish in a hurry. 
       I put a layer of newspapers over the board, and filet a fish.  Then I put the fillets in the sink, I drop the carcass in a bucket and I remove the sheet of newspaper and put it in a garbage bag.  The next fish is taken out of the cooler and started without a bit of mess, on a new sheet of newspaper.
       It is difficult to explain it as well as photos will show it, and so I am putting some photos on my website which show how effectively a ten-inch male white bass can be turned into some of the best eating you have ever had.  Of course, you have to know how to use an electric filet knife to filet fish very well and that takes some learning.  But not much.  If I can learn something, you know it doesn’t have much to do with difficulty.  It isn’t math and chemistry or that sort of thing.
       Old time guides in Canada scoff at electric filet knives, but they are experts with a regular knife and those knives they use are kept so sharp that you can use one to split a butterfly wing.  In remote places, I use them too.  They are great when you have to eat a northern pike for supper on a wilderness lake because the walleye didn’t bite that day.  Northerns are great eating, just as good as walleye if you know how to use a filet knife to remove the Y-bones that are found in the meat.  But those guides in Canada, some of them close friends of mine, have never filleted a white bass.  I tell them that you can’t do it with a filet knife that doesn’t have a cord on it.

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