Author Keith Sutton cooks up a meal of freshly caught bream with fried potatoes on the side. A shore lunch like this can make a fishing trip extra memorable. Photo by Jack Bissell
One of my most memorable fishing trips took place on a little oxbow lake in the backcountry of eastern Arkansas. Two friends, Lewis Peeler and Jack Bissell, had joined me for a day of bream fishing. Fortunately for us, the fish were biting. We used long poles to swing cricket-baited hooks near the lake's broad cypress trees. As soon as our bobbers hit the water, they shot out of sight.
By noon, we had 40 big bluegills and redear sunfish in our cooler. We beached the boat in a shady spot on shore, cleaned a dozen of the panfish, buried the wastes, then built a campfire from wood we gathered nearby. When the fire had burned to coals, we placed a wire grate over the top, heated some oil in a black-iron skillet we'd brought along, then dredged the fish in seasoned corn meal, fried them up crisp and flaky and served them with fried potatoes on the side.
If all the great chefs of the world came together to collaborate on the most delicious meal ever prepared, they could not have created a dish more delectable than those fresh-caught fish cooked over the campfire. We stuffed ourselves and relaxed in the shade to savor the experience.
Preparing your own shore lunch is something you can do to make your next fishing trip unforgettable. Fish pulled minutes earlier from a cold mountain stream can be grilled over hot coals to create a masterpiece of culinary delight. Fresh fillets pan-fried in a cast-iron skillet take on special flavor when cooked beside the lake from which they were taken. Fish never taste better than when cooked over a campfire and eaten while listening to the music of rippling water.
In backcountry areas, you might simply find a gravel bar or open area along shore where you can prepare and eat your meal. On many lakes and streams, you also can stop at shoreline parks or recreation areas where grills or campfire grates are available to make shore-lunch preparation quick and easy.
Plan your meal before leaving home. Gather all ingredients and prepare them for cooking as much as possible. Chop fresh veggies and herbs, prepare spice mixes and condiments, and store everything in air-tight containers in a cooler.
A plate full of trout fried fresh from the stream where they were caught.
Where allowed, you may want to gather downed hardwood to fuel a cooking fire beneath a cooking grate. It is best in most cases, however, to carry what you need for no-trace cooking. This can be a small charcoal grill or grate and bag of self-lighting charcoal stored with matches or a lighter in a small dry box. Or, better still, use a camp stove (with appropriate fuel) large enough to support your skillet.
Another handy item is a grill basket or basket broiler that holds pan-dressed fish or fillets. This locks around the food, making it easier to turn when grilling is your method of preparation.
Pack other items you might need in a dry bag or dry box:
- Fillet knife and/or fish scaler for preparing your catch
- Large cast-iron skillet in which to cook
- Cooking utensils such as a long-blade spatula, tongs and a long-handled serving spoon
- Eating utensils such as plates, cups, forks, spoons and knives ("nesting" mess kits are excellent)
- A pot holder or Dutch oven gloves for handling the hot skillet
- Ingredients for one of the following recipes
Now, all you need is fresh-caught fish to create a memorable outdoor meal. When you've caught a few keepers, find a quiet spot by the lake or stream, and stop for a while to take in the beauty of your surroundings while you cook a special lunch. If you're cooking over charcoal or hardwood, start the fire, and wait for the coals to turn gray. Or fire up your camp stove and get cooking. Prepare the fish according to the directions in these recipes, allowing 2 to 4 fillets per person.
When lunch is over, clean your cook site so it remains unspoiled for those who visit later. Build fires only where permitted, then properly extinguish your fire. When you leave, no evidence of your visit should remain. Carry out all garbage, including fish scraps and uneaten food, for proper disposal.
Panfish and Taters
This classic shore lunch is filling and full of flavor. To enjoy it to its fullest, plan some after-lunch siesta time for dessert. Adjust the amount of ingredients to fit the size of the group you're cooking for.
A meal of fresh, fried bluegills and potatoes makes an unforgettable treat.
- 16 panfish fillets, or 8 pan-dressed panfish
- 6 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
- 1/2 cup green pepper, cut into strips
- 1 (4-oz.) jar chopped pimiento, drained
- 1/2 cup corn meal
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Saute the bacon pieces in a large cast-iron skillet until almost, but not quite, crisp. Spoon a little of the bacon grease (to cook the fish in) into a cup and set aside. Add potatoes, green pepper and pimientos to the skillet. Cook, stirring, until potatoes are nicely browned and bacon is crisp.
While the potatoes are cooking, shake together the corn meal, flour, salt and pepper in a zip-seal plastic bag. Add the fish, and shake to coat.
Push the potatoes to one side of the skillet, then add the extra bacon grease and heat. Add as much fish as you can without crowding it, and cook until the coating is crispy and golden. Cook the remaining fish, and serve piping hot with potatoes on the side.
Southern Fried Fish
You'll be ready cook this favorite if you bring the dry breading ingredients in a one-gallon zip-seal plastic bag. Add the fish to the bag, shake and fry.
- Fish fillets or pan-dressed fish
- 1 bottle Louisiana hot sauce
- 4 cups milk
- 1 cup yellow corn meal
- 1/3 cup flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- Cooking oil
Mix the hot sauce and milk in a zip-seal bag or bowl. Add the fish and allow to marinate while you prepare the cooking fire. Remove the fish and drain. Drop a few fish pieces at a time in the zip-seal bag in which you've shaken together the dry ingredients. Shake to coat. Fry the fish in cooking oil heated to approximately 365 degrees. Cook until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 5 to 6 minutes.
Fish in Foil
Cooking in aluminum foil is a great way to avoid after-lunch cleanup. Your meal can be cooked and served in a foil packet, then the foil is placed in a garbage bag for later disposal. This quick, simple recipe turns fresh-caught fish into a repast fit for royalty.
Fish never taste better than when cooked up fresh beside the lake or stream from which they were caught.
- 1 cup softened butter
- 1 tablespoon minced chives
- 1 tablespoon minced parsley
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- Fish fillets or small pan-dressed fish
- Salt, black pepper
- 1 lemon
Before leaving on your trip, make an herb butter by blending the butter, chives, parsley and oregano. Pack in a small waterproof container and store on ice. Also carry a small roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
At meal time, tear off a piece of foil, about 18x18 inches, for each fillet or fish you will cook. Spread the center of each foil piece rather thickly with the herb-butter mixture. Put fish on the foil, season with salt and pepper, and squeeze on a little lemon juice. Then fold the foil around the fish, and double-fold the edges to seal in the juices. Place a cooking grate 6 to 8 inches above campfire coals, and grill the foil-wrapped fish 15 to 20 minutes, turning once. When you think the fish is done, open one packet and test with a fork. If the fish flakes easily, it's ready to serve.
Quick & Easy Grilled Fish
Using this cooking method, you'll have delicious fish ready to serve in just minutes.
- Fish fillets
- Melted butter
- Lemon-pepper spice
- Cooking oil
Dip each fillet in butter and season with lemon-pepper. Cook a few inches above medium-hot coals in a grill basket or on a cooking grate that's been liberally coated with the cooking oil. Grill a few minutes per side, just until fish flakes easily.
Ramen Noodle Slaw
This easy-to-make slaw makes a great shore-lunch side dish. Prepare it ahead of time and keep in a cooler until lunch is served.
- 1 package pre-chopped slaw mix
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
- 1/4 cup slivered almonds
- 1 package chicken-flavored Ramen Noodles, crushed
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- Ramen Noodle flavor packet
- 3 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
Combine the first five ingredients in a bowl. Mix the ingredients of the flavor packet with the tarragon vinegar, blend well and toss with the slaw mixture. Mix the sugar and vegetable oil in a separate bowl, heat in a pan and pour over the slaw. Blend everything well and keep on ice until serving.