In the wake of the the long ice fishing season, nearly two months of trout fishing so far and the recent start of panfish activity, some anglers' freezers are starting to fill.
Traditions handed down through generations often dictate the ways fish are handled, stored, cooked and consumed. But one local seafood professional said many anglers could be getting more flavor from their fish.
"The secret to getting the best taste starts as soon as you take it off the hook," said restaurateur Luke Wholey.
In 1912 Wholey's grandfather founded the Strip District seafood market that bears his name, and Wholey grew up working in the family trade. As a kid he became fascinated with fishing in the Allegheny River. He's worked on an Alaskan salmon seiner and as a trout guide in Montana. Today, says Wholey, when he isn't managing his Wild Alaskan Grille restaurant, he's fishing -- mostly in Pennsylvania waters.
"When I was 18, I caught a flathead catfish estimated at 55 pounds. We took a picture and the guy at the bait shop said it would easily have been a state record," said Wholey. The flathead record is 48 pounds 6 ounces.
"The more I fished, the more I realized what's in these waters around here and how great the fishing is," he said.
No, the special of the day at Wild Alaskan Grille is not something that Wholey caught that morning. That's illegal in Pennsylvania.
"And anyway," he said, "I'm a catch-and-release guy. Except for walleye. It's a great tasting fish."
Too often, said Wholey, anglers fail to bring out the best taste in their fish through poor handling and storage.
"As soon as a fish dies it begins to decompose," said Wholey. "Putting it on a stringer in the water is fine, but walking around with dead fish on the stringer is going to be bad."
The first chore after harvesting a fish is to bleed it, he said. A slit across the gills will allow the blood to drain. Immediately put the fish on ice.
"The best thing is to eat it that day or the next," he said. "If you're storing it, it's all about keeping oxygen from getting to the meat. The freezer sucks the moisture out of the fish. The best way to prevent that is to buy a vacuum sealer that removes the air from the bag before freezing."
The next best option, said Wholey, is to freeze the fillet, or whole fish, in water.
"Put the fish in a freezer bag, cover it with water, seal it and put it in the freezer," he said. "That prevents freezer burn. It's good for about a year."
To thaw, Wholey recommends putting the frozen bag in a bowl and refrigerating it overnight, or putting it in cold water for a couple of hours.
Wholey grew up fly fishing for trout. On the plate he'd much prefer wild trout, but stocked trout cook up well over an open fire -- charcoal or wood.
"The fire will bring out the best flavor," he said. "Steelhead are best cold-smoked with the skin on. Pull the pin bones out with pliers, then carve it like a turkey breast into 1/8-inch slices."
These days, Wholey mostly fishes the Allegheny and Ohio rivers for bass, walleye and catfish.
"But my No. 1 quarry is musky. They're so elusive," he said. This year, Wholey released nine ice fishing on the Allegheny River.
"My best was, in three days I landed three. But there were a thousand trips where I didn't catch any," he said. "That's what makes it so exciting."
In the kitchen, it's easy to over-cook fish, said Wholey. Cooking them whole with the heads on makes it easier to avoid over-cooking.
But some fish flesh is easier to handle as fillets. Wholey likes boneless, skinless crappie fillets dipped in beer batter and panko crumbs and deep fried. He pats perch fillets with cornmeal before baking.
When Wholey does walleye he makes a paste from salt and egg whites, covers the fish with the paste and bakes it for 30 minutes at 350 degrees for a 2-pound fish.
"Then get a hammer and crack open the crust," he said. "It's not salty or dry. It's moist and delicious."
Having grown up fishing Pittsburgh's rivers, Wholey knows a lot about catfish.
"After trimming the belly meat, soak it in buttermilk or whole milk," he said. "It pulls some of the heavy metals out of the fish and neutralizes the flavor."
The state Fish and Boat Commission recommends eating no more than one meal (1/2 pound) per week of sport fish. More specific and restrictive regional consumption advisories are posted at www.fishandboat.com.
Wild Alaskan Grille is located at 2106 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412-904-4509, www.lukewholey.com.