A Wisconsin Fish Fry Goes To South Dakota
“Here’s one,” I said as I pull back on my spinning rod. The rod is bent in half and the tip is plunging as a fish takes off. I turn the fish but it stays deep running again. I stop the fish, getting it coming back toward the boat.
“Need the net?” Doug asks.
“I’m not sure,” I say. “Let’s see what it is first.” Then we see the fish in the murky river water. It is a thin, gray shape and I yell, “It’s a keeper!”
I hear Doug drop his spinning rod and grab the net. He extends the net as I lead the fish into it, pulling up underneath it. The fish is twisting and turning in the mesh as it clears the water. It is a 15-inch sauger.
“Another one for South Dakota,” I tell Doug as I twist the hook out of the fish, dropping it in the livewell.
Doug Hurd, of Eagan, Minnesota, and I are fishing the Mississippi River at the dam north of Red Wing, Minnesota. It is a cool, windy day in late October. We hear the current of the river churn around us as we are anchored close to a rocky island in about 20 feet of water. Overhead we hear shrill yelping of snow geese mixing with the deeper guttural honking of geese. Eagles soar overhead cavorting on wind currents. It is gray with the promise of rain.
We are here on a mission to get the last fish we need for a fish fry we take to South Dakota in three weeks. For a number of years, a group of four of us hunt pheasants on a farm on the very northern edge of South Dakota. We usually arrive on Thursday night and hunt Friday and Saturday. On Friday night we host the family of the farm we hunt on to a Wisconsin style fish fry.
The fish are walleye and saugers we catch in the Mississippi River. Every year Doug and I, first in the spring and later in the fall, catch enough fish for our South Dakota fish fry. It is all a part of the tradition of our hunting trip and it is a way for us to repay the family for their hospitality and making us a part of their family.
Doug sets the hook and yells, “Good fish!” I reel my line in, grab the net and move to the back of the boat as Doug fights the fish. It makes a couple of short runs when finally a fat, golden brown shape of a walleye comes into view as I thrust the net in the water.
“This should make the livewell,” Doug says as he measures the fish. “16 inches,” he tells me, dropping the fish in the livewell.
Three weeks later it is a bright sunny, very windy day in South Dakota.
Doug and I are with Howard “HoJo” Johnson and his son, Nate, from St. Paul. We are hunting the cattle farm of David and Dixie Melland and Dave’s parents, Dean and Anna Melland. Dean once introduced himself as the senior member of the firm.
It is the first afternoon of our hunt as Doug and I are walking on opposite sides of a ditch, overgrown with trees, brush and grasses. The wind always blows across the prairie, but today it is exceptionally strong as it rattles the tree limbs in the ditch between us.
There is an explosion of feathers and cackles as a pheasant launches itself on Doug’s side gaining height as it climbs in the air. As Doug brings his shotgun up a rooster flushes in front of me, racing along the edge of the brush. I hear Doug fire as I bring my double barrel up and fire. My bird collapses, falling into the side of the tree line.
I yell over to Doug I have a bird and he yells back he has one too. Doug walks across part of the field to where he finds his bird laying on the ground. I continue walking the outside edge of the ditch to where I saw my bird drop to find it wedged in the branches of a small tree. Reaching up, I pull it down.
“We got a double,” I yell and Doug smiles as he lifts his bird up.
It is now late Friday afternoon. The western sky is yellow with slashes of pink and purple as darkness begins to creep across the prairie. It is still windy with a cold bite to it. We are in a tractor storage building. Outside Doug is cleaning birds while HoJo, Nate and I are getting the fish ready.
It will be a Friday night fish fry like the thousands of Friday night fish fries throughout Wisconsin. The fish are unthawed and we pull plastic bags of fillets out of the ice chest, lay paper toweling on a table, placing walleye and sauger fillets on the toweling and covering them with more toweling to dry them off. We fill two plastic bags with breading. The breading I use is Andy’s Fish Breading I find at Fleet Farm. I buy it in the 5-pound bag so it lasts me almost a year.
On the table we have about four-dozen fillets. This is no small operation.
We drop five or six fillets at a time in the bags with the breading and shake the bag until the fillet is covered in breading. We place the now breaded fillets on wax paper in an aluminum pan. Each level is about ten fillets. Then, we place another sheet of wax paper down for the next layer of fillets.
By the time Doug finishes cleaning the birds and put them on ice in the ice chest, all the fillets are breaded so we drive down the gravel road to David and Dixie’s house. The back of the truck is filled with all the equipment we need for our fish fry.
We decide to get out of the wind by setting up on the side of the house where there isn’t any wind for both our comfort and to protect the flames on the stove. The wind is still blasting across the open prairie. I have a two burner stand-up Camp Chef stove we set up, hooking it to a 20-pound tank of propane. It has a combined 60,000 BTUs when it is lit. It sounds like a jet engine taking off as we light the burners. “Satellites with thermal imaging might report a rocket has been launched from South Dakota,” Doug says, as there is a rush of sound and heat from the burners.
Next to the cooker, we set up an old card table. The aluminum pan with the fish and two more aluminum pans lined with paper toweling, we will use to dump the cooked fish, are placed on the table. Also, I set out a couple of slotted spoons, a large flashlight and a plastic bag with bottles of spices for the potatoes.
A Wisconsin fish fry could come with any number of potato options. French fries or potato salad are most common. Both of those have some problems when being transported and kept in an ice chest for a couple of days. Because of that we boil canned round potatoes. They are easy to transport, we don’t have to worry about spoilage, are easy to make when cooking over a camp stove and, most importantly, taste good with melted butter and spices. Although perhaps not the most traditional potato for fish fries, it has become part of our Wisconsin fish fry tradition we export to South Dakota.
I forgot to pack a large pot for the potatoes so we borrow one from Dixie. HoJo goes inside with a dozen cans of round potatoes where he will open the cans and dump the potatoes with the water in the pot. I pour a gallon bottle of vegetable oil into the fish fryer and it is starting to heat up.
I send Nate into the house with several bottles of tarter sauce, a loaf of dark rye bread with a quarter pound of butter to give to Dixie to put on the table. Rye bread is, again, one of those Wisconsin fish fry traditions. Years ago, bread was served with fish so if you got a fishbone caught in your throat, eating bread would force it down. Although that is not so much a concern today, serving bread with fish has evolved into part of the meal. It has never been any other bread, such as wheat or white bread, with a fish fry either. It has always been rye. I am not sure why, but the taste seems to go well with fish and it is part of the Wisconsin tradition, so we follow it in South Dakota as well.
Nate takes in a large dish of coleslaw. I have never seen a fish fry in Wisconsin where you didn’t get coleslaw. I admit coleslaw might be a bit of an acquired taste. As a boy, going to fish fries with my parents, I never liked the little paper cup of coleslaw sitting on the side of the plate of fish. However, as an adult, I love coleslaw and eat it often with a number of other dishes besides fish. Certainly with fish you need to have coleslaw. It is the Wisconsin way. I used to bring creamy coleslaw but now I bring vinegar coleslaw. Several years ago my wife made vinegar coleslaw from a recipe my mother gave her. It was a hit in South Dakota and I got several compliments on it so it is only vinegar coleslaw now.
Nate and HoJo return with a large pot of potatoes, placing it on the other burner. By now, the oil is bubbling and I drop in the first half dozen fillets. There is this wonderful smell of frying fish mingling with the cool night air. It reminds me of countless fish fries I have been a part of all over Wisconsin and northern Minnesota and even in such diverse places as Panama, Spain and, of course, Canada. A lifetime of memories come from the fish pot as the fillets bubble and boil in oil. Doug turns on the flashlight so we can see how the fillets are coming along.
By this time, David comes out with bottles of beer, handing one to me. I remark there must me a law in Wisconsin you can’t fry fish without a beer. Doug who was born and raised in Wisconsin says he believes it is true. David has just returned from doing the evening farm chores. He hunted with us most of the day but left before we made the last drive of the day.
The first fillets come out of the oil, draining the last of the oil and are dumped in one of the aluminum pans lined with paper toweling. I take one of the fillets and break it up, passing out pieces to Doug, HoJo, Nate, David and myself. This is one of the advantages of standing around the stove when the fish are being cooked. The collective opinion is the fish are good.
By now, a group of barn cats surrounds around us. There seems to be about a dozen of them, crowding close to us hoping for a handout. They are an impatient group, starting to jump into the box we brought the stove in and the plastic box we stored the other cooking supplies. Some of the more energetic cats try to jump for the card table so we keep pushing them back but occasionally they are rewarded for their persistence when I throw them a small piece of fish that fell off a fillet.
Half of the fish are done and I give the aluminum pan to Nate to take inside for Dixie to put in the oven to keep warm. I drop another half a dozen fillets in the fish fryer. We have a robust fish fry for what is normally a large group. Besides the four of us hunters, there are David, Dixie and their four daughters, sometimes with boyfriends in the past, now two husbands. Dean and Anna will join us as well, and at times a sister with her family and the occasional niece or nephew will be with us. It can be a large group and that is ok. Big families are always more fun.
We are starting to get to the bottom layer of fillets. The potatoes are boiled. As the last fillets are dropped we pour the water off the potatoes. Nate tips the big pot while I am holding the colander catching the potatoes as the water drains off. I have spent a couple minutes impressing upon Nate how important it is he does not pour any hot water on my hands. He smiles as he nods he understands. I dump the potatoes back in the pot and throw in three sticks of butter to melt. I stir the potatoes and melting butter while adding a bit of garlic, a bunch of white pepper and a bunch more Italian seasoning.
The last fish come off the stove and Nate takes the second pan of fried fish into Dixie to put in the oven to keep warm. I turn off the burners, grabbing the pot with the potatoes and head inside. The first pan of fillets is on the stove and I put the potatoes next to it. Next to the stove is the bowl of coleslaw, a plate with the rye bread and butter and bottles of tater sauce. People are lining up to serve themselves, and once their plates are filled, they move to the dining room table or living room where another table is set up.
As can be expected with this large family gathering, there is lots of noise and it is a good thing. There are stories of the day’s hunting, jokes, laughter and more stories of farming and family life. I sit next to Dean and he tells me of the days when he was a boy riding a horse to a one room schoolhouse. Although now abandoned, the schoolhouse still stands and we have hunted near it, peering in the door to see the old student desks.
Some are going back to the kitchen for seconds on fish. It is a huge compliment. Outside it is still windy and temperatures are dropping. It could snow as it has in other years. The fish fry, with fish caught in Wisconsin and cooked like it is in Wisconsin, is a success. But the success comes because of the people. A fish fry, or any dinner, is as much about those you are with as it is the food.