A swimming partner at my local YMCA told an interesting story the other day.
"Back when I was a kid, dad would load us up in the car several times a year, and head for Lake Erie," he said. "We'd stay with friends up there and spend most of our time fishing on piers or along the beach. Sheepshead was what we mostly caught, and we could usually get 10 to 15 of them, throwing back the big ones and keeping the rest on ice. Then we filleted them and mom fried the lot. There were never any leftovers. I still have friends that bring me some and I'm happy to get them. They're good!"
Another friend who works for Ohio Sea Grant has a father-in-law who loves walleye fillets. "When I catch walleye, I give him some." the man said, "and when I don't, I give him sheepshead. He's never noticed the difference yet."
Both men have a good point, and I don't mind admitting that I've eaten these lead-colored bottom feeders more than once, again just the one- to three- pounders. And they tasted fine.
There's an obvious moral to this little story. There'll be days along the big lake when you catch little besides these hard-fighting, head-shaking fish, and usually they're thrown back, often with a curse or two to speed them on their way. So, you go home with an empty cooler for your day's efforts. Next time keep a few and give them a try. You might be surprised.
I'll offer a quick recipe for sheepshead, if you get more than a skillet full. Fillet your excess and slice the fillets lengthwise into one-inch strips. Roll each strip and pin with a toothpick, then dip in mayonnaise, and drop briefly into boiling water. The pieces fluff out a little and become what some call "Poor man's shrimp." Dip them in a good cocktail sauce and have at it.
Often on those same walleye or yellow perchless days, you'll make a fair catch of white perch. They look a good bit like a white bass, but have an olive cast to their skin and again are usually thrown back. I rarely fish the big lake without catching at least a few, and a couple of years ago I kept half a dozen to supplement a meager dozen or so of yellow perch. I filleted the lot, my wife fried them, and the only way I could tell the two species apart was by the shape of the fillets. They tasted just fine.
Then we come to carp, another "rough fish" that draws scorn and names like "sewer bass" and "bugle mouth." An elderly African American who fishes one of the area's larger lakes often, keeps everything she catches channel catfish, bullheads, suckers, and more, but mostly carp. "I take everything home, fillet the lot, and boil the fillets with a little onion." she said. "Then I drain the pieces, mix it all up, form into something like salmon patties, and bread and fry them. My grandkids love those patties."
I've tried young carp more than once, filleting and removing that horizontal "mud streak," then frying them just like walleye. They're a bit oily, but not bad at all, and when I smoke some, they're even better. Again, there's a moral to this story, and it's a simple one. On a bad day you might be throwing back something almost as good as what you're not catching. Keep a few rough fish the next time your chosen game fish isn't biting, and try them. What have you got to lose?
Dick Martin is a free-lance writer from Shelby. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org