Panfishing is primarily a culinary act. The fact that we classify sunfish, crappies, and several perch species under the collective banner of "panfish"-by which we mean fish sized to fit squarely inside a frying pan-attests to this. While some degree of boyish sport is involved in fishing for and landing a palm-size bluegill, it is usually mere foreplay to eating that fish, ideally after it's been fried whole and served atop some newspaper beside green onions and a lemon wedge. On most days, I'd rather bust into a school of crappies or sunnies than release a trophy steelhead. The pleasures of panfishing-the scrappy fights, the fast and steady action, the fish on the stringer like shiny new coins and, of course, the cooking and eating-seem to sink a little deeper, down past the ego to the soul, which I've always thought lies somewhere near the belly. Panfishing entails mostly pure joy, and then a stack of napkins.
The vast majority of panfish in this country arrive at the table fried, and there's a good reason for that: Few fish fry up better. An acquaintance of mine once lived happily on nothing but fried bluegills (this was in Mississippi, where we call them bream) for 30 straight days and nights, eating six or eight fish a day and, local legend has it, never changing the grease. I can't think of any other fried fish-other than catfish, maybe-that the stomach and brain would exclusively accept for such a prolonged period. Though subtle, even whispery flavor differences exist between the panfish species, all boast firm, flaky-white meat and a mild, clean, creamy taste (in Louisiana, that creaminess lends the crappie its local name, sac-au-lait, which is French for "bag of milk"). I've always preferred frying panfish whole-cleaned, scaled, with just the head removed-for two reasons: Filleting a mess of panfish is a chore worth avoiding, and the crispy fried tails (of young bluegills, especially) are outlandishly delicious. Think piscatorial pork rinds.
Panfish cook equally well without involving vats of grease. With their solid flakes and unobtrusive flavor, cubed panfish fillets can serve as a base for camp chowders. Just sautÂ¿Â¿ diced onions, celery, carrots, and potatoes in bacon grease, add water or fish stock to cover, and simmer for half an hour or so. Then add some cubed panfish fillets, diced bacon, and as much half-and-half as your heart will allow, simmer for another five minutes, and find a chair and a big spoon.
The flaky meat is also a natural for fish cakes, which make grand fish-camp breakfasts or a champion starter course for dinner when they're dressed up with sauce. Fish cakes are also a savvy use of those leftover bream from the previous night's fish fry and can be concocted with pretty much any ingredients you find at hand. Panfish are indulgent that way: They're easy enough to catch that cooking them should be a stress-free operation.
[NEXT " Ultimate Fried Bream"] The Ultimate Fried Bream (Tails and All) (Serves four)
This recipe comes from Hershel Ladner, who hosts a fish fry every summer at his hunting camp near Wiggins, Mississippi, for his fellow directors of the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. He's been catching and cooking bream for close to seven decades. Scoring the bream along their backbones makes eating them a blessedly boneless task-the meat slides right off the ribs. Small bluegills can be eaten whole, bones and all. And be sure to eat the crunchy-fried tails, which some folks consider the best part.
8 bluegills (or any panfish), gutted and scaled with heads removed
2 cups yellow corn flour (substitute cornmeal if you can't find corn flour)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup peanut or vegetable oil
Â¿Â¿Â¿1 With a sharp knife, score the fish along both sides of its backbone. Don't cut too deep (roughly 1/4 inch)-the goal is to let some oil in there to looosen up the meat.
Â¿Â¿Â¿2 Heat an iron skillet or other heavy pan over medium-high heat.
Â¿Â¿Â¿ 3 Place the corn flour on a plate or shallow pan and season it with salt and pepper. Lightly dredge a fish in this coating, shaking off any excess. Pour the oil into the pan. When it's hot and shimmering, add the fish. Jiggle the pan for the first 5 or 10 seconds to prevent sticking. Cook until a golden crust forms on the fish, then carefully turn it over and brown the other side. Drain on paper towels and remove to a warm plate or a cookie sheet placed in a 200-degree oven. Repeat with the rest of the fish, adding more oil as necessary. Serve with lemon wedges and green onions.