When I met my wife she already had an impressionable four-year-old boy, who had leukemia to boot. I was not sure how to bond with the little fellow, and I think he felt the same way. I soon learned that just being me was enough to keep his interest. I can remember mowing the lawn thinking I was alone in the backyard only to look behind me and see Seth and his little bubble mower following close behind. I soon found that everything I did was mocked by the little guy. I began taking him fishing and soon learned that little boys don’t have the patience for trout and bass, or maybe it was me who didn’t have the patience to teach things that were not “easy” at such an impressionable age.
Soon after that we tried pan fish. They were extremely easy to catch and I could see the light in his eyes as he reeled them in. On one of our first outings a good-sized bluegill swallowed the hook and by the time it was removed I knew it was going to die. My future wife suggested I keep it so it didn’t go to waste. Now I knew it wouldn’t go to waste if I tossed it in the bushes since there are plenty of critters around that would be happy to get a free meal, but the tone in her voice was something I was beginning to understand (the way most married men commonly do), so needless to say the little bluegill went home with us.
I thought that was the end of it, but I was gravely mistaken. Little did I know my fiancée had just paved the way for a family tradition. From that day on, every time he caught a pan fish Seth wanted to take it home, so I cleverly created new rules as I went. The fish had to be at least bigger than the palm of my hand, and we had to catch at least five of them before we could take any of them home. If we caught less than my designated five, we simply let them go before we went home. At first that wasn’t a problem because he was little and I was busy putting on worms, fixing bobbers, and clearing snags for him. So I had no time to fish myself and we seldom caught five decent-sized fish. But after a few years passed the lad became an excellent fisherman, and before I knew it we were always catching my quota and then some.
(L to R) Isaac, Seth, and Jared Bechtel with a mess o’ pan fish.
The next problem was cleaning and cooking the fish. Sometimes when I was done “experimenting” on them (trying to figure out how to prepare them was downright maddening), I felt like a mad scientist. I would scale them and find some strange way to cook them up that I found on the Internet. Most times I had a huge mess and a pile of tasteless pan fish that were almost unworthy of eating. At the time all that really mattered was that Seth felt a sense of pride and satisfaction knowing that he helped bring home dinner. I got to the point that I dreaded going pan fishing because I knew that my evening would be full of frustration when we got home. Many times I tried to make crazy excuses for not going fishing, but in the end the sadness on his face was always more than I could bear so we went fishing anyway. After a while I became proficient at preparing and cooking them. But then, a few years later, my second and third sons began fishing. Some nights we would have twenty or more pan fish to take care of when we got home, and at that point I had all but given up on having a normal lifestyle. I had begun having nightmares of being stuck in a hot room with small fish scales stuck all over my body, and a stench that would bring anyone in their right mind to their knees. I would wake up shaking and in a cold sweat praying for it to end. Well, you get my point.
One evening my wife told me about a program that was advertised by Jim Mucci at Hills Creek State Park. Jim taught youngsters how to catch pan fish, and clean and cook them at Hills Creek Lake. I know Jim, and hadn’t seen him for quite some time, so we decided to check it out. Besides, I was hoping to learn a trick or two.
And learn I did. There was a group of twelve or thirteen people at the lake when we arrived. Jim brought everything that was needed—poles, bait, the works. He also brought everything needed to prepare and eat the fish. We spent about an hour fishing and caught over twenty fish between us. To my surprise, Jim also only kept the pan fish that were the size of his palm or bigger. Done fishing, we went up to a nearby pavilion to learn how to prepare them. At first I was a little put off, because the way he taught it was so simple I should’ve figured it out myself! But after he cut up four or five of them I joined right in.
He began with an electric fillet knife, starting the cut just behind the pectoral fin, which is just behind the gills, and cut down to the spine. Basically this is just like filleting any other fish except for one difference: when he came to the tail of the fish he did not cut the fillet off completely. He kept a bit at the tail intact. Then he flipped over the meat he had just cut (still attached at the tail) and began cutting from the tail up toward where the head would have been. That second cut in essence was between the skin/scales, essentially eliminating the de-scaling process. This was a whole bunch cleaner and a whole lot quicker than my method, with the only problem being that you had to sharpen your knife more often. When one side was done he just flipped over the fish and did the same thing on the other side. When you were finished you had two boneless fillets. If done correctly, you can get a lot of meat from each fillet.
The last step was to cook the fish. After a good wash, each fillet was placed in egg batter. From there the kids got to help by taking corn flakes cereal and mashing it up. (I’ve come to find there are several things that can be substituted for the corn flakes, so feel free to vary this.) Each batter-coated fillet was then dropped into the corn flakes, which stuck to the egg batter well, then it was dropped into a deep fryer for a couple of minutes. That was all there was to it.
Jeremy and sons Isaac and Jared at Hamilton Lake
The great thing about Jim’s program is that we got a chance to actually do everything. So the next time we caught a pile of pan fish we just repeated the lessons.
So began a new way of life for our family. The only problem is that since I have a family of five with three growing boys we need about thirty to forty fish to make a good meal.
To this day the tradition continues. We fish as a family, cut up and cook the fish as a family, and I believe some of our best memories have come from our time on the water catching pan fish on the lakes in our area. The kids feel a sense of being able to contribute and have a lot of fun while on the water. In addition to the fun I can stay connected to my kids, have those tough talks that are ever so important as a child grows up and have them in an environment full of excitement. Several years have passed since the tradition started; Seth is now nineteen years old and still jumps at the chance to pan fish with me. We do many other activities together but this story is about the seed that was planted which produced the tree that binds us together.
Jeremy Bechtel is a Forest Ranger, outdoor enthusiast, husband, and father from Wellsboro, Pennsylvania.