Walleye: Plentiful and only a phone call away

  • Article by: AMY THIELEN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2010 - 2:14 PM

Minnesota walleye by the plenty is available up north - no fishing rod necessary.

Plant foreman Pete English held a box of walleye in front of the Red Lake Fisheries building.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Minneapolis Star Tribune

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Even though our lakes are full of walleye, a meal of it remains largely a private, home-cooked affair, largely because this fish appears on the table only if you've been lucky on the lake.

For many people (my own family, for example) the treatment for walleye rarely deviates from this prescription: a healthy roll in cracker crumbs followed by a nice dip in a shallow fat bath. The fried breaded walleye fillet might as well mark its own small holiday; it is dependably delicious, sufficiently fattening to be celebratory, and, well, predictable.

I wonder, though, if unfettered access to walleye -- a way of purchasing Minnesota walleye that didn't depend on luck, for instance -- might not widen our walleye-cooking horizons.

Now we can find out, because Red Lake Fisheries in Redby, Minn. -- the nation's only hook-and-line commercial walleye fishery -- is gathering momentum. After taking a seven-year hiatus for walleye population recovery, the operation returned to fishing in 2006. This year it posted fully recovered numbers of our favorite lake fish, taking 625,000 pounds of walleye from Red Lake in 2009 -- about 75 percent of the available harvest.

With a simple phone call to the fisheries, you can order quick-frozen walleye (and some perch and northern pike, if available) to be delivered to your doorstep the very next day. You can also request fresh (unfrozen) fish, in which case well-iced fillets ship within a day of catching.

Or you can simply go there, as I did: Walk in the front door of the fisheries and walk out with an armful of fresh catch, stealing a glimpse of the great Red Lake that looms behind the building as you climb into your car.

Two large basins of water make up Red Lake -- Upper Red Lake and Lower Red Lake -- connected to each other by a small inlet. Together they are the sixth largest natural freshwater lake in the United States, falling in line right behind the Great Lakes.

Four-fifths of the lake falls within the borders of Red Lake Reservation, whose largest communities -- Red Lake and nearby Redby -- sit on the lower lake's south shore. The latter is home to both the Red Lake Fisheries and Red Lake Nation Foods, a mail-order business for local delicacies, such as wild rice.

As shallow as a platter, Red Lake is one of the state's loveliest and most hallowed lakes. Huge bodies of water have a way of impressing their immensity on a culture, and Red Lake certainly has powerful traits -- a ring of sugary platinum beach sand in the summer and a flat tranquility in the winter.

In the winter, activity swarms beneath the tight skin of the ice, where the fish seem to run in herds.

The fishing has always been legendary on this lake. "The old chiefs," said Al Pemberton, director of the Red Lake DNR, "they always thought that [Red Lake] was their icebox." Like opening a refrigerator, they took from it what they needed, and rarely fished the center of the lake; the perimeter held plenty.

Now in their high-volume winter season, 300 people ice fish for an average of 10,000 pounds of walleye per day, according to Sean Rock, manager of the Red Lake Fisheries. In the summer, between 30 to 50 people fish from boats and bring in about 2,000 pounds per day.

No fishing line in sight

I stood at the counter and ordered five pounds of fillets -- indulgent for me but a modest order to the clerk, who slowly wrapped and taped my packages with a mixture of care and nonchalance.

At home, I unwrapped my stash. The flesh was tightly woven and pearly, with the opalescent sheen particular to extremely fresh fish. I can't look at fish this pristine without at least considering Japanese food, for their methods are simple and pure and never upstage the fish.

I dug out something unusual: my bamboo steamer. With that much fish in my refrigerator I could afford to experiment. I coiled the fish into a tight rosette, set it onto a plate, poured sake over it and set the plate in the basket.

It turns out that walleye's firm flesh steams beautifully, and within 15 minutes after getting to work I was dipping moist, snowy chunks of sake-steamed walleye in a spirited ponzu sauce that I Midwesternized with a little freshly ground horseradish in place of wasabi.

The next day I fried a few fillets in a light panko crust full of herbs and tangy Parmesan cheese, modernizing the family tradition a bit, but not too much.

After cooking all of my walleye, one thing is clear: This fish tastes a lot fresher than the imported Canadian walleye I usually buy at the grocery store. If these experiments are going to continue to be so delicious and speedy, either a road trip or a phone call will be in order.

In any case, I'm going to need a lot more fish.

Amy Thielen is a chef and writer who divides her time between Two Inlets, Minn., and New York City.

  • IF YOU WANT TO GO, OR TO ORDER FISH

    The Red Lake Nation is a sovereign reservation, but welcomes nontribal visitors.

    • Red Lake Nation Foods (a mail-order business), www.redlakenationfoods.com, 1-218-679-2611.

    • Red Lake Fisheries, 19050 Hwy. 1 North, Redby, Minn., 1-218-679-3513.

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