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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Farewell for now, ice fishing
The season is almost over, but the tradition is forever

I tasted sturgeon caviar for the first time this winter, a luscious gift made through one of those friend-of-a-friend channels, one that began with a fisherman on frozen Lake Winnebago during its storied annual spearing season. I'm in no way a caviar authority, but when I sampled the roe ' silky texture, faint brine, arrestingly rich ' I 'got' ice-fishing like never before. For a delicacy like this, it's no wonder people stuff themselves into snowmobile suits, lay in unseeing wait and freeze their tushes off.

Of course, ice-fishing is about more than flavor. The minute the water goes solid in winter, augers come out and fish shanties open for business. Entire mini-towns of the makeshift shacks spring up on such bodies as Monona Bay and Shawano Lake, occupied by retirees, laid-off construction workers and other hardy, seemingly barmy enthusiasts with flex time to spare.

Mostly men, they huddle on upturned buckets or fold-out stools, drop their lines beneath the ice, and take their chances. They triumph over frigid temperatures with the help of homemade furnaces and hot liquids (or cold beer), and they wax enthusiastic about the joys of ice-fishing ' the challenge, the camaraderie, the peace and quiet, the thrill of the catch.

The melt is under way now and all huts will soon be down, but the fishing will go on. Fact is, sport fishing is a quintessentially Wisconsin tradition, a year-round hobby enjoyed by young and old, rich and poor, skilled and wet behind the ears. Important to the state's tourism economy, the sport fishing industry in 2006 was worth about $2.3 billion dollars. A survey done in 1996 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed that about 45% of Wisconsin residents fish, compared to a national average of 29%.

'Fish is the miracle food,' goes a song from Guys on Ice, the hilarious hit musical about two fishing buddies which played to sold-out audiences in and beyond the region for years after it premiered in 1998. And it's true: winter, spring, summer or fall, nothing beats a plate of cornmeal-dusted, pan-fried perch. A successful day's yield might be broiled, grilled, smoked or sautÃed. It might be stuffed and baked or simmered in chowder (see recipe). However it is prepared, fresh-caught fish dresses up meals, helps keeps the grocery bills down and connects eaters to a wilder, simpler side of life.

Likewise, the sport of fishing offers a range of pleasures ' the taste of crisp morning air, the sight of a loon breaking the water's surface, the comfortable silence between two friends who share a boat or shanty. Despite the ultimate joy of a tug on the line, fishing is fun even when the critters aren't biting. As more than one angler has been known to declare: 'A bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work.'

Bluegill Chowder

3 tablespoons bacon fat

1/4 cup finely chopped shallots

4 cups fish, chicken or vegetable stock

4 cups diced Yukon Gold potatoes

1 cup milk

1 cup half-and-half

2 cups corn kernels

1 pound bluegill fillets, quartered

2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

salt and pepper

Heat bacon fat in heavy saucepan over medium-low flame. Add shallots; sautà until tender. Add stock and potatoes; simmer until potatoes are tender. Remove half the potatoes and 1 cup hot broth and use a food processor, blender or immersion blender to puree the mixture until smooth. Return puree to saucepan. Stir in milk, half-and-half, corn, bluegills and chopped chives. Simmer gently 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Makes 6-8 servings.

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