The Often Maligned and Under-appreciated Northern Pike
19 July 2020
One of the most maligned fish in the Canadian outdoor and angling experience has to be the Northern Pike. Long and slimy with a big snout of a mouth and big sharp teeth, this fish creates a rather imposing and perhaps undesirable presence when dragged into the boat of most fisherman. Because of this imposing and ungainly outward appearance they are called almost every derogatory name in the book – Jackfish, Slough Snakes, Axe Handles, Water Wolves and Slimers to name just a few! Laura says that they look kind of dorky but cute, supporting once again the old adage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (although I’m concerned because sometimes she says the same about me??).
I have a completely different feeling than many fisherman when we land a Pike – I’m not really looking forward to the rather intricate cleaning process, however the thought of those delicious fillets in the frying pan can make up for everything else.
As well as not being a very handsome fish, the Northern Pike can grow to a size which might scare the bejeepers out of anyone. The world record Northern Pike weighed in at about 45 pounds and coincidentally was caught in Basswood Lake, Minnesota – I’m very happy with an Algoma 3 pounder, thank you very much!
Even though I had caught a few Pike early in my fishing days in Ontario, it wasn’t until I was working in Edmonton in the 1970’s and 80’s that I got into targeting this particular fish. My brother Johnny and I would go to Cross Lake, a relatively small shallow lake about an hour and a half drive north of the city. Sometimes we would even head out after work anxious to catch some fish.
Once at the lake we would set out in his canoe. We’d take turns - one of us paddling with a fishing rod wedged between our knees, and the other would be turned backwards in the bow seat and just troll on the other side of the boat from the paddler.
We would use first generation simple floating Rapalas with a sinker up the line and it usually didn’t take long for us to get enough Pike to make the trip worthwhile. There was a fish cleaning station set up at the shore which was maintained by the Provincial Park staff and when we first went up to the lake, we noticed a guy just zip off the fillets from the side of the fish. It took him less than a minute to get rid of most of the nasty stuff you encounter when cleaning a Pike. He then skinned the fillet with a quick back and forth draw of his knife and voila he was left with what “looked” like a beautiful clean piece of fish – but more about that later.
This was a turning point in my fishing experience. I wanted to try that simple technique - which I did in turn with our fish. For certain it was quick and easy with a good filleting knife. What I wasn’t completely ready for was the removal of the dreaded “Y Bones”, which are legendary villains in the lexicon of fishermen across the country – just Google “Y Bones” if you have any doubt!
What looked like a clean piece of fish from which that you could expect to quickly extricate the rib or belly bones, and the remaining lateral “pin” bones like most other fish, was actually a mine field of hidden bones, not surprisingly shaped like a Y. These slender bones filled up what seemed to be the entire side of the fillet. This is why many people throw Pike back into the lake, or leave them to a more dubious fate. The Y bone puzzle had to be sorted out in my mind - there was too much flesh to not make a best effort to come up with a boneless piece of fish. This of course was well before the days of internet and YouTube where Pike filleting videos now take up considerable bandwidth up in cyberspace.
Anyway, to get to the point, I quickly developed my own multi-stage method of cleaning out the bones and after a few fish, the technique was perfected and clean pike fillets did abound for the rest of my time in Alberta. Maybe the odd bone or part of a bone was missed but I think I did pretty well.
I then moved to BC for thirty plus years and unfortunately my favourite fish did not make its way out that far, and I had to be satisfied with my annual vacation trips to lakes in Algoma to catch my Pike.
Now about the Pike eating part of the story. The Pike is a marauding predator which is undoubtedly at the top of the food chain in most lakes where they’re found. They eat mostly other fish but will snack on frogs, other reptiles and probably any small critter that might cross their path. Mostly relying on other fish for their diet I think is the key to the exceptional texture and flavour of the fish. Many freshwater fish such as Lake Trout, Salmon and Whitefish have substantial fat deposits on their sides which can create a rather unpleasant “fishy” taste when eaten – not the Pike – lean meat right through from stem to stern.
From early times centuries ago in France, the delicious lean flesh of the Pike was prized as the main ingredient for an exclusive dish “Quenelles de Brochet” (Pike Quenelles). Chefs would grind up the meat in a mortar and pestle, mix it up into a paste with a Panade (or white sauce), then by scooping and shaping the mixture between two spoons, form a small delicate dumpling. These dumplings would then be poached in white wine and served with a rich crayfish sauce or other delicious condiment.
Sounds delicious but too much trouble for me – I like them simple in the frying pan with some oil or butter; seasoned lightly, then breaded or dredged in flour, or just plain fried as is – so good they can’t be beaten anywhere IMO! In recent years our extended family has started to have a fish fry annually using a turkey fryer to deep fry the battered fish. Laura makes an excellent beer batter with seasoned flour and adding 1/3 cornstarch (a secret ingredient to make the fish even more crisp). The oil is heated to about 350 F and then the fish is dipped in batter and dropped into the fryer with pre-blanched and previously cooled French Fries (a trick I learned in New Zealand) - lip smacking good!.
We have batter fried other fish too such as pickerel, lake trout, bass and whitefish, but interestingly, a veteran of over 50 years of cooking and enjoying fish from Basswood Lake and the surrounding area, attended one of our Fish Fries. He told me that the Pike he had just enjoyed was the best of the bunch – hands down - high praise which I appreciated, considering the very highly esteemed source, and based on my unabashed advocacy of Northern Pike as the “King of Fish”!
Anyway, if there is any doubt about this delicious fish, there are plenty of supportive testimonials on the internet as well as the previously mentioned instructional videos on how to clean a Pike. So next time you are lucky enough to hook onto one, make sure you give it a try in the frying pan and I‘m certain you won’t be disappointed!