Kansas lakes and rivers are teaming with fish, many of which can be delicious when properly prepared.
Jeff Brown barely got the 55-pound blue catfish into a net before his line broke.
He hauled it up on the bank of the Kansas River near the Union Pacific Depot in North Lawrence, straining as the fish squirmed.
It was going to make a lot of fish strips.
"A lot of people won't eat fish from the river," he said. But that doesn't faze him. He comes up almost every weekend from Wyandotte County to fish. He was going to fillet the wriggling behemoth and freeze the meat. He likes catfish.
"I think the blue cats are a little better," he said, at least better than the small channel catfish he also caught that evening.
The rivers, ponds and lakes of Kansas are filled with fish, from yellow perch to largemouth black bass. While many people reel them in for the pleasure of doing so and then release their catch, others like to enjoy the what they've netted.
Fishing in Kansas
Not far from Brown's spot, Loman Lathrom and his grandson John Perry, 8, sat fishing in the last of the evening light. Lathrom has fished the Kansas River for catfish for 50 years.
"I like crappie, I just never go (to the lake,)" he said. He pushed a freshwater drum carcass, filleted for bait, into the river as they packed up to head home. Perry held up a catfish just over a foot long.
"That one's mine," he said. His grandmother would fry it up for him.
While many people fish for catfish and crappie for the dinner table, fisherman Ned Kehde, outdoor columnist for the Journal-World, says Kansas boasts plenty of other fish worth eating.
Kansas fisherman can catch bass, walleye, perch, catfish, crappie, sauger, saugeye, buffalo, carp, gar, drum and even trout.
"There are really some better fish out there," which are delicious once properly prepared, he said.
Kehde said he learned all he knows about cooking fish from a fishing buddy, Pok Chi Lau, a Kansas University professor of photography.
Cooking what you catch
Lau doesn't like to buy commercially caught fish; too much of the fish is wasted. But he does enjoy cooking what he catches.
"I eat lots of fish," he said. He fishes from Canada to Mexico, and brings home around 25 different types of fish for his table.
The best part of fishing is knowing where dinner came from -- how it was caught, processed and cooked, he said.
"I work for it," he said.
He has learned to cook different fish over the years by watching and trying. He hasn't ever read a fish recipe, he said.
"I wouldn't believe it until I see it and taste it," he said. He says it is easy to miss nuances, like cooking time.
"Cooking time is very important," he said. Everything needs to be done in the right order to get warm, properly cooked fish on the table to serve.
"There's nothing good about eating a cold fish," he said.
Different fish require different handling, he said.
"It's a matter of knowing the material," he said. He also likes to use as much of the fish as possible. If he filets the fish, he makes fish stock from the bones and head. Otherwise, there's a lot of wasted fish.
"I put all kinds of stuff in there to make a fantastic soup," he said, especially in the summer and fall when gardens are producing.
Tips on cleaning
An important step in getting a fish ready for a meal is bleeding it out after it is caught, Kehde said, and before it dies. Though not all fisherman take this step, he said it is worthwhile.
"It'll improve that fish," he said.
To do this, Kehde said, open the gill plates.
"If you open them way up, you can see a little red dot," he said. That is the fish's heart. Pierce the heart and put the fish in water.
For those who need help with filleting -- another important step -- Kehde recommends having someone demonstrate the skill or checking out a book on the subject.
"It's not difficult once you see it," he said, but it is difficult to explain. After the fish is filleted, it's time to cook.
Brown likes to fillet his catfish, cut the meat into strips and roll them in mustard. Then he dips the strips in cornmeal and deep-fries them. Lathrom said he doesn't cook fish, but his wife does. Kehde likes to cook his catches a few times a week.
One tried-and-true old-fashioned recipe can be used for almost anything -- fillets of white bass, blue gill or crappie. Kehde said to take 12 fillets, an egg and a package of saltine crackers. Pulverize the crackers and season them with whatever the cook prefers -- fresh herbs, dried spices, or just pepper. Dip the fish in the beaten egg, dip it in the cracker mixture and then pan-fry it in hot oil. Many people use cornmeal, he said, but he has always preferred cracker crumbs.
-- Felicia Haynes' phone message number is 832-7173. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
CAUGHT IN THE ACT
All anglers ages 16 to 65 need a Kansas fishing license before they head to area streams, rivers and lakes in search of a fish dinner.
The cost is $3.50 for a 24-hour permit, $15.50 for a yearlong permit (it expires Dec. 31), or $240.50 for a lifetime permit. To catch trout, an additional $8 permit is required.