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Fishing the Ottawa
January 10, 2017
Photo: Renate Pasborg-Hering - Ice fishing huts on the Ottawa River near Hudson, Quebec, mid-1990s.
From Lake Temiskaming way north of North Bay, the Ottawa River flows in swooping curves and the occasional zigzag south-east above Algonquin Park, toward Ottawa then on to Montreal, widening as she goes. Here and there along her 1271 km path she spreads wide enough to become a lake and all along her meandering route, she sends off shoots of smaller rivers and drops into waterfalls.
Étienne Brule was most likely the first European (1610ish) to navigate this river known by the Algonquin as Kichesippi (The Great River). In 1805, the first paper mill in Canada would be built on it at St-André-Est; and the European conquerors used her winding path as the template for the Ontario-Quebec border, which they drew right down her middle.
For both First Nations and Europeans the Ottawa River served as a highway and trade route. Later, it would deliver massive timbers to ports and new towns until 1910, when the mighty pines that towered on her shores were reduced to stumps. Much hydro electric energy is harnessed from the force of her rolling journey, but to me, the Ottawa River was just “the lake”, as in: "Let’s go down to the lake!"
Lac St-Louis and the St. Lawrence – and I suppose, ultimately the Atlantic – is where she’s headed but not before spreading out from the sandy shores of my childhood home, Hudson, Quebec, to hilly Oka to become The Lake of Two Mountains (Lac des Deux Montagnes).
Photo: Don Langford - sailing the Ottawa River and Lake of Two Mountains could get pretty exciting!
Okay, technically, Hudson is on the shores of the Ottawa River, but the lake was just a few minutes to the east and around a bit of a bend and we sailed it all summer long. We crossed it too, on a perilous little ferry. Now it’s an impressive thing – stable and solid and capable of holding about a dozen cars – but in those days, it was a tippy wooden dock on pontoons that held about four cars, dragged by a small motor boat that chugged and belched blue smoke. The pilot seemed to enjoy the terror he could see on my mother’s face, when he occasionally cranked his neck to see if his cargo was still there, cigarette clenched firmly in a maniacal grin.
Ferry driver, Marcel Simon, circa 1950 Photo: Mary-Anne Blenkinship
For a Hudson kid, this was as close to a roller coaster ride as we got, unless someone took us to Belmont Park for a death-defying ride on the Flying Mouse!Photo: Mary-Anne Blenkinship
In wintertime, when we felt like a visit to Oka, for some cheese right from the monastery, we took our chances and sped across the ice in our cars, on a plowed “road”. I comforted myself with the thought that if a huge snow plow could make it across without falling through, so could Father and I in his big old LTD. The path cut through the annual shanty town of ice fishing huts that cropped up just as soon as the ice was thick and solid.
Photo: Don Langford - Ice huts dot a frozen Ottawa River as seen from the Hudson Yacht Club - 1950s.
Photo: Sonya Olthof - colourful ice huts waiting for winter on the Lake of Two Mountains on Vaudreuil.
Ice fishing was profitable back then. A patient fisherman, well-stocked with Molson to keep hydrated and kerosene to keep warm, could bag enough tasty fish to last until spring, and we did; black garbage bags full that stayed in the huge chest freezer on the back porch. I fished that river all year long, from sandy beaches and rocky outcroppings; from the docks of the yacht club, off the end of the wharf, or through a hole in the ice. I had my own little red rod that I loved.
I expect the river absolutely teamed with tasty aquatic life in the days before colonization, over-fishing, silt drift and pollution. I imagine many a trout, perch, bass or eel were smoked or cooked up in goose fat along the shoreline back then. According to the Ottawa River Keeper, there are currently 85 species of fish in the Ottawa. Back then, it was yellow perch I was after. Sunfish went back in – they were too likely to have minuscule snail parasites burrowed into the flesh – rock bass and delicate black and white catfish were an occasional treat; and from out in the deeper parts of the river, there were great northern pike to be had.
Father cooked the wild things in our house. While Mother had her tried and true canned soup recipes, casseroles, and Scotch mince, Father was the one to bring in a basket of foraged shaggy manes or puffballs, fiddleheads and lambs quarters, and he showed me how to cook them. Butter and salt. Come to think of it, that’s how he cooked just about everything: fry it in butter, sprinkle with salt. Possibly add more butter at the table. Definitely add more salt and some pepper, too.
Father and I would stuff ourselves with fish from the Ottawa at the kitchen table, while my panic-stricken mother paced, hand to her throat in a sympathetic strangle, just waiting for me to choke on a bone. On the table beside me, Father placed a slice of dry bread. If I felt a bone stuck in my throat, I was to eat the bread which would push the bone down. I was confident in the life-saving properties of dry bread. Mother was not.
Fast forward to the 1990s. I’m now living in Toronto, and a regular visitor to Long Point for birding in the spring. Up at the top of the spit there sat a family-style restaurant – The Country Kitchen, or some such. Sure the food was greasy and mostly came out of a very large bucket from some distributor, but when I saw the sign “Lake Erie Perch in a Basket”, I had to go in. The perch was battered, deep fried, piled into a plastic basket, and I was disappointed. Just as Sir Paul McCartney famously said of a possible Beatles reunion, “You can’t reheat soufflé.” Turns out you can’t buy back your childhood perch memories either. Thankfully, you can recreate them.
Fried Perch My Father’s Way
Father showed me how to gut, clean, and scale my catch; once beheaded, de-finned, fileted and rinsed in cold water, he instructed me to score and salt both sides and leave them like that overnight in the fridge. In the morning, while the big, cast iron pan was heating up on the stove, I rinsed all the salt from the fish, patted it dry, dredged it in flour, added a shockingly big knob of butter to the scorching pan, and lay the fish in, skin side down. It fried up so crunchy and golden. One flip, a few seconds on the fleshy side, and onto the plate with nothing more than a drop or two of vinegar. The crispy tail was my favourite part.
Have you ever heard that expression, you know, "....we fried up a mess o'fish..."? I ask because I would never suggest how much perch to make or eat in one sitting. I think the all you can eat approach is best here. The fillets are small, delicate, delicious and addictive. So, make and eat as many as you want. This is a no-judgement zone.
Filets of wild caught yellow perch; as many as you can eat!
Pepper, white or black
Approximately 2 Tbsp butter, more of less depending on the size of the pan
A few drops of white vinegar (optional) or fresh lemon wedges
I bought these lovelies from Fisher Folk. If I want tail-on, I'll have to dig up my old red rod!
This is a two-day deal. Start the night before you want to have the perch for breakfast. With a very sharp, small knife, cut a few shallow slits into the skin side. Salt both sides and stash in the fridge overnight.
In the morning, rinse the salt off, pat dry.
Mix flour with pepper on a plate; dredge the fish on both sides, shake off excess and set aside to await the frying!
Heat a large cast iron pan on high. You might want to open a window for this or put the fan on, it’s going to get smoky.
Add the butter; it should sizzle and sputter around the pan. Once melted add the fish, skin side down.
Fry until it lifts easily when nudged with a spatula. If it feels a stuck, it’s not ready to flip. Should be about 3 - 5 minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the fish, but go for a crunchy, deep golden skin.
Flip and fry the meaty side for just a couple of seconds or one minute, or just until slightly coloured.
Serve immediately with lemon wedges, or a bottle of vinegar on the table and for bone-phobes, some dry bread.
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I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!