December 30, 2019 at 11:45 am
By Fisheries Biologist Jacob Scoville
I’m guilty as charged. When fishing for lake trout (or as us Mainers call them, togue), I almost always release small fish back into the depths without even the thought of keeping any. My subconscious is probably telling me, “let them go and let them grow,” but fisheries management isn’t always that straight forward. I also never had much of a taste for lake trout. For years I’ve heard many anglers say that lake trout “aren’t good eating” or are “too oily for me” and I used to think that I agreed. But this year, I’m eating more lake trout. Why, you might ask, or more importantly, how? Well, hear me out.
“I don’t want to keep them if I’m not going to eat them” is a common and respectable phrase fisheries biologists hear while conducting creel surveys in the Downeast region. Most anglers pursuing lake trout are looking for a large fish but releasing every small laker you catch may not be increasing your odds. For example, Beech Hill Pond in Otis is home to Maine’s state record lake trout, but if you were fishing there last winter, you were more than likely catching a plethora of lakers around 16 inches long. This is due to an overabundant population. When a water becomes overpopulated with a predatory fish like lake trout, individual fish often become stunted due to a lack of forage, and when there is not enough prey those “giants” are rarely found. Fisheries biologists then often set regulations with liberal bag limits and low or no minimum length limits. These regulations are designed to encourage harvest and thwart the overpopulation, which in turn increases forage fish populations, which in time, increases the size of the average fish. Many lake trout waters throughout the state are facing this dilemma and the best way to help is to start harvesting smaller fish.
There are two methods that I believe are the simple and tasty ways to prepare lake trout: smoking and frying. Frying fish is a staple of Maine cuisine, so this winter when you keep your limit of lake trout consider frying them. A crowd-pleasing recipe is to fillet the lake trout, removing the skin and lateral line, then chunking the meat into small pieces. Season the chunks with salt and pepper and then add an egg wash, roll them in flower (or your favorite breading), and then drop into a fryolator or a cast iron pan with hot oil. Once finished, you can serve the fried lake trout like a traditional fish n’ chips or try serving as fish tacos. Fish tacos are my favorite and a great way to hide any “fishy” or “oily” taste to picky eaters.
If you have a smoker or you have a relative, friend, or fishing partner that has one, you should consider smoking some lake trout. This preparation makes a great snack, appetizer, and can replace salmon in any smoked salmon dip recipe. There are many recipes for smoked fish, but if I had to suggest a recipe, this would be it: fillet the fish leaving the skin on; rinse under cold water and pat dry. Arrange the fillets in glass dishware, skin down and then mix a dry brine with 2 cups of brown sugar, ¾ cup pickling salt, smoked paprika, granulated garlic, pepper, hot pepper, and your favorite seafood rub. Mix the dry brine ingredients well. You may have to make multiple batches to completely cover the fillets. Pack the dry brine around the fillets until completely covered and refrigerate for 24 hours. After 24 hours remove from brine which will now be mostly liquid. Rinse fillets and pat dry with towels. Dry the fillets until a thin pedicle forms on the outer skin; then dry in the fridge on drying racks if available. Place the fillets in the smoker and keep on low heat (150⁰F) for 1-2 hours. Thereafter, increase heat to 200⁰F to finish. Internal temperature should reach 160⁰F for at least 30 minutes. Try using applewood or alder wood to smoke the fish.
Hopefully, this is the year we keep a New Year’s resolution, and with a few tips for preparing lake trout, your taste buds will be thanking you. This is also a great way to introduce a new angler to the sport of ice fishing, high catch rates with tasty results. As always, consult the Maine fishing laws before you head out to catch dinner this winter, and don’t forget that keeping smaller fish today may lead you to catch a fish of a lifetime tomorrow.