Make the Best of Small Fish

For the honest angler who will admit to catching them, here's some advice on preserving and cleaning small fish.

| March/April 1983

  • small fish - plate full of fillets
    It took me just 20 minutes to produce these ready-for-the-frypan fillets.
    Tom Cwynar
  • small fish - start of the filleting process
    Practice and patience make perfect when filleting small fry. Here I've made an incision along the upward-facing side of the backbone, and am slicing through the skin around the skull and down to the rear of the side fin. Next, I'll peel the flesh from top to bottom away from the body, using my knife to free the meat from the ribs.
    Tom Cwynar
  • small fish - green plastic tub full of small fish
    A typical "bad" day's haul of small fish.
    Photo by Tom Cwynar
  • small fish - filleted fish
    Here's a perfectly filleted carcass.
    Tom Cwynar

  • small fish - plate full of fillets
  • small fish - start of the filleting process
  • small fish - green plastic tub full of small fish
  • small fish - filleted fish

An old fellow who fishes from a pier near our house claims that he's never kept a yellow perch under eight inches long. "Them little ones are just too much trouble," he insists.

The same gentleman also tells me that whenever he does manage to bring home some "keepers," he and his wife usually cook them up for supper that same night, but when he's had a "Bad Day at the Pier" they simply do without their anticipated fish dinner.

Almost everyone, of course, likes to catch sizable specimens, but I at least can't count on doing so. More often than not, big fish seem as scarce as calm cats at a dog show, a fact that gave rise to the classic empty-handed angler's excuse on bad fishing days: "All I could catch were a bunch of little ones, and I threw them back."

Threw them back! How can anyone spurn such tasty tidbits of delicious protein? I spend a lot of time angling for trophies, but I also like to eat fish. So when the big ones sulk and won't cooperate, I simply and often easily harvest a batch of small fish for the table.



Little Fish, Big Rewards

In most waters, small bluegills (also called bream or brim), crappie, perch, rock bass, white bass, and other pan fish are abundant and accessible from shore, and require little investment in time or equipment to catch. What's more, gleaning some of the small fry from a lake can often prove to be good environmental management. Pan fish are notorious for overpopulating lakes, you see, causing severe competition for food. That situation in turn results in entire communities of underdeveloped animals. By harvesting some of the little guys, then, you give the remaining specimens a chance to mature naturally. That's why, in many states, bag and minimum-size limits for these species are liberal —or nonexistent. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Hooked and released fish are also quite likely to die. So by keeping the fry, you'll be doing your bit for conservation.]

Small fish have some distinct culinary advantages over their big brothers and sisters, too. They're easier to scale and (in my opinion) to clean, and their flesh is more tender and flavorful. (Some people also say that you needn't be as concerned about ingesting harmful contaminants when you eat young specimens, because they likely haven't had as much time to bioaccumulate chemicals and heavy metals in their bodies as have big "old timers"!)






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