When I was a child, perhaps nothing excited me more than fishing. Even when the Atlanta Braves were having their miraculous winning years in the 1990's, the spectacle of Maddux, Glavin and Smoltz's artistry on the mound could barely pull me away from sultry evenings by the pond. I did not have a dad around or any older male figure to instruct me on the finer arts of fishing. I was in my late teens before I truly learned to use a spinning rod and lures. My angling equipment of choice was the humble cane pole. A length of cane between seven and ten feet, some light monofilament line of about the same length, a small hook and a cork or plastic bobber were all I needed for tackle. A five-gallon bucket on which to sit and in which to bring home my catch, was my only accessory for bank fishing - I never had a boat. A few worms dug in the morning dew, or caught crawling along after a rain was my only bait. With that in tow, this skinny, southern kid whose skin would burn easily and seemed to attract mosquitoes like flies to honey on sultry evenings, was ready to fish!
My fishing waters were small farm ponds, swamps and occasionally, the great Cape Fear and Lumber Rivers and their smaller branches. The land on which these bodies of water rested or flowed was family land - great grandparents, grandparents, great uncles and aunts, cousins and distant cousins all had farms, woods or pastures which held waters in which fish lurked beneath thick lily pads, in cattails and under algae... all weedy, mysterious and dark. Fish generally bite best in morning, evening and night but, I was so enthusiastic as to leave as early as possible, stay out all day with nary a bite and come home well after dark.... sunburned, bug bitten and exhausted. I would stare at a bobber for hours, snacking occasionally on a ham sandwich, perhaps a couple of my grandmother's biscuits and some cold, fried fatback, tepid water and a few cookies. I loathed abandoning the water's edge even to answer the call of nature. I spent far more hours fishing than I ever did catching fish.
From those solitary vigils, I learned far more appreciation for a pond and the wildlife that visits it than any academic reader of Thoreau could ever imagine. I learned to read the clouds and how the life below the waters would react to barometric changes that were far beyond my youthful education. I saw every kind of light reflect and the ripples of every breeze. I saw meteor showers and eclipses undisturbed by electric light. I learned to identify hawks and blue herons and learn how each sets its table. I saw the turtles emerge from their winter rest and the tadpoles turn into frogs. I saw the doe with twin fawns coming silently in for a drink and the dragon fly light on a cattail with the sun casting rainbows through the prisms of its wings. I learned the companionship of silence and the comfort of the sounds of nature.
Beyond all contemplative appreciation though, I learned to fish! I learned to let my bait light on the water and drift slowly down, into and along with any current from a creek or spring. I learned to estimate the depths of the water and suspend my worm just at the top of the under waterweeds. I learned where the pan fish hide, where the bass hunt and how the catfish swim in long patrols of the bank just below the drop off. I also learned the pride of being self sufficient - going into the wilds with little more than wits and patience and returning with food enough to feed a family. Those lessons with a cane pole made me a fisherman, an outdoorsman, a writer and very much the man I am.
What I caught, mainly, were pan fish - bluegill, crappie, bream and pumpkinseed - with the occasional large mouth bass or catfish. These mild tasting, lean (with the exception of catfish) little fighters remain a delight on my table.
The first, and most often overlooked aspect of their edibility comes at the gutting - a lesson I learned in more recent years. If you are lucky enough to catch a few pregnant females, the roe is spectacular! Even a small blue gill has a few spoonfuls of delicate eggs that should never be wasted. At pond side, simply tossing them in a medium hot frying pan with some bacon fat yields a rich and satisfying light meal (especially served over grits). If you take them home, cover them in water salted to about the taste of seawater. After 48 hours, drain and eat it either cooked or like caviar. Beyond the roe, all fish contain livers that are mild tasting and delicate - fried or poached. The liver, especially, has very little fishy taste at all.
The meat of pan fish, as the name suggests, is most suited to the pan. You can cook them in other ways - grilled, poached, smoked or baked - but these mild tasting, very fresh fish seem to take to frying so well that few people cook them otherwise. Either a flour or cornmeal batter will do, or a combination of both. You can coat them in either a dry or wet batter. Most often, my fish were simply cleaned and scaled, dredged/dusted in a light coating of cornmeal mixed with a good bit of salt and a dash of black pepper and fried. Frying can be done in a pan with a bit of pork fat, which is magic in the outdoors, or in a deep fryer. The resulting fish is light and crispy, satisfying and as addictive as potato chips.
Truly, there has been only one time when I could not eat my approximate weight in fried pan fish.... and, that is a story I should likely not tell...
Years ago, when I worked as a youth minister in a small church un rural Georgia, a parishioner had a get together at his lake house. He had spent days catching dozens of pan fish. They were to be deep fried and served with coleslaw out of doors. Although attendance was somewhat compulsory, I was excited to go. Those invited included the preacher and his wife, their five sons, a few elders of the church and those of us in the periphery of the hierarchy. We did a little fishing before dinner was to be served, but it seemed our host had fished the waters out for the time being. The preacher and his wife were remarkably over weight, as were his five sons, and I recall wondering if I should get more than a tail fin on which to chew, when an event that scarred me for life began to unfold. The preacher's wife had been in the lakeside cabin, assisting with he frying and slaw making. I saw her beckon to the preacher and observed them to have a very serious conversation. After which, they disappeared into the house. During the ensuing period, several of us were turned away from the singular bathroom facilities, as the preacher's wife had thoroughly clogged the toilet with her enormous waste and no plunger was on hand. After much debate and consternation, the preacher returned the toilet to working order by use of his hands alone. Soon after, the preacher and his wife served the fish.... I claimed heat exhaustion and left early.... I never shook his hand again. My employment ended soon after.