Fish aren’t just nutritious, providing essential protein as well as heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. They’re delicious, easy to clean, and simple to prepare, too.
And as most anglers already know, there are a variety of freshwater fish that make a welcome addition to any table. We’d like to discuss a few of our favorites and offer some helpful tips and recipe ideas.
If you’re new to preparing fish or would like to try something new, keep reading!
Table of Contents
Best Freshwater Fish To Eat
The humble bluegill gets its name from the striking color you’ll find on its gill plate, just at the back of its head. Fun to catch, and plentiful nearly anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains, bluegill are popular at fish fries from northern Michigan to southern Louisiana.
One of many species of panfish, there’s a reason they get this moniker. They’re just the right size to pan fry after a light coating in seasoned flour like Zatarain’s or Louisiana Fish Fry. Some people like to fillet bluegill, and this technique produces small, clean pieces of fish that are perfect for pan-frying on your stove.
If you’d like a quick refresher on how to fillet these little guys, check out this video in which Kent Dickinson gives a master class:
My personal favorite way to serve bluegill leaves the bodies intact. I simply scale them, gut them, and remove the head from behind the gills. After a quick toss in fish fry, I’ll drop them whole into a large pot of 375-degree oil over a propane burner. That lets me fry fish for the whole family or a large group of friends, and it avoids any fishy smell in the kitchen.
If you don’t have this kind of setup, a pan is in no sense inferior!
A few drops of Tabasco or some homemade cocktail sauce, a squeeze of lemon, and you can count me happy all day!
Ictalurus furcatus, Ictalurus punctatus, and Pylodictis Olivaris
The first fish I ever caught was a catfish.
In Cocodrie, Louisiana, where my family had a fishing camp, there was no question that the catfish was destined for some hot oil!
Three species are common in the US: blues, channels, and flatheads–and all three make a fine meal. And while not the easiest fish to clean, a few quick tips will have you processing them like a pro!
Rather than the typical scales, catfish sport leathery skin that needs to be stripped or filleted from the flesh. I strongly recommend that you get a good pair of catfish pliers to help you get this job done!
If you’re not familiar with cleaning them, or just need a refresher, check out this video:
Catfish fillets are popular in restaurants for a reason, and they stand up to strong seasoning well. I like Tony’s, but you probably already guess that given where I’m from!
And there’s no need to stick to frying for catfish. Because its flesh is firm, it’s ideal for the grill and oven. So whether you think you might enjoy your catfish blackened, baked, or sauteed, you should give this versatile fish a try.
Here, a professional chef demonstrates how to grill catfish fillets:
A trick I learned in Des Allemands, Louisiana is to cut the fillets into pieces about the size of your thumb before frying. This allows them to cook more quickly and increases the crispiness and seasoning in every bite.
Pomoxis annularis/Pomoxis nigromaculatus
Whether you call them papermouths, crappie, or sac-a-lait, one thing’s for sure: they’re among the tastiest fish you can catch! Crappie offer delicate, almost crab-like meat, making them among the most sought-after game fish for the table.
Like bluegill, these panfish are perfectly sized for the stove, and many people like to fillet them or fry them whole in a large skillet. I’ve had them many, many times that way, and they never disappoint. You clean them just as you would clean bluegill.
But they also lend themselves to other methods just as well, and smothering them in a tomato-based gravy like a courtbouillon or sauce picante is quite popular in Louisiana. Both sauces provide a zesty, acidic background that lets the crappie strut its stuff.
Because crappie is so tender and flaky, it goes well in any number of dishes. Do you like fish tacos? Try crappie and you’ll be amazed!
The yellow perch is native to the US and Canada. A great fish to catch as they put up a monstrous fight for their size, they’re something of a delicacy around the northern lakes, streams, and rivers where they’re found. That’s especially true around Lake Erie, where they’re a prized fish for the table. By contrast, many anglers in Maine won’t touch them!
That’s a huge mistake, because yellow perch makes a beautiful meal.
If you’re not sure how to clean and fillet perch, it’s very similar to what you’d do to bluegill:
Like all fish, it’s delicious fried, but there’s no reason to stop there. How about a steaming bowl of perch chowder on a cold winter day?
An easy classical French preparation is Perch á la Meuniér, in which perch fillets are dredged in a very light coating of flour and served with a delicate sauce of browned butter. Who wouldn’t like that?
Salmo trutta, Oncorhynchus clarki, Oncorhynchus mykiss, and Salvelinus fontinalis
Trout are freshwater cousins of salmon, with the brown, cutthroat, rainbow, and brookbeing the most common species you’ll catch. Plentiful in clear streams, rocky rivers, and some lakes, whether you’re a fly angler or a chef, you can get excited about trout!
High in heart-healthy fats, trout are exceptionally good for you, especially if you skip frying. My favorite way to prepare them is by whole roasting. You simply scale, gut, and gill them, then drizzle on a bit of olive oil, sprinkle on some salt and pepper, and place them in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes.
More elaborate additions are possible, of course, and it’s a snap to stuff them with herbs and lemon and perhaps add a splash of white wine to the roasting pan. Just be sure to go non-stick!
Last but certainly not least, let’s consider the walleye. A common cold water fish, it’s an angling staple in the northern US. Exciting to catch, the good news is that it’s also simply amazing to eat!
Walleye are good-sized fish, and they produce some beautiful fillets in no time at all. Don’t be intimidated by cleaning them. It’s pretty straight-forward:
Once you have those beautiful fillets ready to go, the possibilities are endless. Like catfish, they’ll stand up to frying, grilling, sauteing, baking, and pretty much any other cooking technique you’d like to throw at it.
Of course, you can skip the filleting, and treat them like the trout above. After a quick scrape, gut, and gill, rub your walleye with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Make a few deep incisions on each side of the fish, and toss it in a hot oven.
Fish Frying Tips
There are many ways to prepare fish, and they’re all delicious. That said, fried fish is a treat enjoyed across the country, and lots of people turn to breading and hot oil when fish is for dinner.
Here are a few tips if you’re new to frying fish.
Use a thermometer
Fish should be fried in oil that’s between 350 and 375 degrees. The best cooks I know don’t guess about this temperature–they use a thermometer every time. If the oil is too hot, the fish browns without cooking through; if it’s too cool, the fish doesn’t crisp well and absorbs too much oil.
I like an old-fashioned frying thermometer with a clip, and I use one every time I deep fry.
Whether you’re frying your fish in a pan or pot, on the stovetop over a propane burner, or even over a bed of hot coals next to the river, never overcrowd your pan. You don’t want the pieces of fish to touch one another, or you’ll risk steaming rather than frying. Even when deep frying in a tall pot, too much fish at one time will cool the oil down far too much.
The oil will cool
On that note, as you add fish, the oil will cool. The more fish you add, and the less oil you’re using, the more pronounced that effect. That’s why I start my oil at 375 degrees and add the fish in small batches. Between them, I let the oil come back up to temp.
Most fish (most seafood) is done when it floats
How long should you fry fish?
If the oil is deep enough, when the fish floats, it’s done!
Air dry on a rack
This may sound strange, but never lay your fried fish on paper towels to drain. I know this is a popular technique, but it holds the cooling oil next to the fish as it rests, reducing its crispiness and encouraging it to absorb even more.
What I recommend instead is air drying on a cookie or oven rack. Place paper towels under the feet of the rack to catch the oil that will inevitably drip, but let the air do the work of drying.
Your tastebuds will thank you!
I love fish, and I have many fond memories of fish fries, grilling parties, and fresh trout straight from the oven. As any fish fanatic can tell you, there’s nothing like eating what you’ve just caught, and we hope this article has given you plenty of new ideas.
Give these recipes a try, and let us know how they turned out!