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Wild Side: Rough fish aren't rough to eat

Many of us are convinced that the only good-tasting wild freshwater fish are bluegills, crappies, yellow perch and walleyes. They all have sweet, mild white meat that’s somewhat translucent before cooking. They are pretty bland tasting, however, when compared to other fishes.

Bill Smith of River Falls is an avid musky fisherman. He catches muskellunge for the challenge and thrill of the sport but he releases them. Smitty says that walleyes “bite like an old lady nibbling a cookie, fight like a wet pair of blue jeans, and taste like whatever you put on them when they are cooked.”

The price of wild-caught saltwater fish in the grocery store has skyrocketed in recent years as fish stocks have been depleted world-wide. Today rough or non-game freshwater fish species are easily caught, under-appreciated and under-eaten. They will become an increasingly important source of protein as the world’s human population approaches 10 billion.

Some fish species are called rough fish for a variety of reasons. Some are predators of popular game fish, some don’t readily bite on an angler’s hook, some muddy the water and eat aquatic vegetation, some have lots of bones, some acquire a musty taste in summer due to algae blooms, and some are non-native species.

Common carp, freshwater drum, burbot, buffalo fish, and white suckers are all classified as rough fish in Wisconsin, but they are all delicious when properly prepared. Those fish species comprise the majority of the fish biomass in many of the large rivers and lakes in the state.

Common carp are native to Europe and Asia. The Commissioners of Fisheries of Wisconsin introduced carp to the state starting in 1880. Carp were stocked throughout the state until 1895 when the program was discontinued. Now carp are abundant in nearly all but the coldest waters of the state.

Despite their abundance and popularity in other parts of the world (boiled carp is a traditional Polish Christmas dinner, Chinese grow carp for food in aquaculture), carp rarely are found in grocery stores in the United States. Working on the Mississippi River for many years, I enjoyed stopping at the small grocery store in Nelson to buy some smoked carp.

I learned some fine points of catching carp on hook and line from the late Bruce Foster of River Falls. We would set up lawn chairs and rod holders along the wall in the park on the St. Croix River in Hudson. A small, strong hook tied directly to 8-pound line and baited with sweet corn was the key. A single small split shot a couple feet above the hook was used to get the bait to the bottom. We would cast out, leave the bails open on the spinning reels, and watch for the carp to pick up the bait and run with it. Then it was set the hook and hang on as the carp headed for Minnesota.

Bruce and I also fished with worms to catch carp, suckers, quillbacks and freshwater drum. We put the fish on ice right away and later smoked the carp and quillbacks, pickled the suckers and fried up the drum to feed the multitudes in River Falls.

An excellent small book, “A Fine Kettle of Fish — Rough Fish, Crayfish and Turtles — How to Catch and Prepare Them and Why,” by Vern Hacker of the Wisconsin DNR provides fishing techniques, how to handle the catch, and recipes for cooking, pickling and smoking fish. The book is out of print but it is still available on-line at

This week I netted a good-sized carp that was thrashing around spawning in the shallows of Lake Wapogasset in Polk County. I killed it, put it on ice, brought it home, cut off the fillets, removed the fatty parts, and then brined the meat for a few hours in a half gallon of water with a cup of pickling salt, a half cup of brown sugar and a quarter cup of lemon juice. I rinsed off the meat, let it air dry and then put it in the smoker with apple wood for three hours. It was delicious!

For comparison testing, I caught a few brown trout, removed the gills and entrails, brined them in the same solution as the carp, and smoked them over apple wood. I’ll bring the smoked carp and trout on our annual fishing trip this week. We’ll see if my experienced fishing friends find the smoked brown trout as good as the smoked carp.

Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at

--Dan Wilcox, Outdoor Columnist