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Out In It: Winter fish fry stirs up warm memories


March 5, 2021

I twisted and pulled at the icy bags scattered along the bottom of our basement chest freezer in mid-February. The Minnesota winter had proven mild until that week. Bone-chilling winds pummeling the house convinced me to hunker in place, forgoing my weekend pursuit of fish trapped below the ice.

I turned my attention to the fish encapsulated deep in the freezer. A midwinter fish fry seemed like the perfect way to protest our weeklong frigid reality.

I scooped up the first bag of fish and turned it over in my hands. A nice assortment of crappie fillets from the Cromwell area. I recalled drifting and bouncing in the waves and July warmth, the boys swinging crappie after crappie over the gunnel, laughing — the far-off bite of winter not registering on our collective radar.

I dove in headfirst, fingertips scrambling to connect with another bag of fish just out of reach. Like a fierce battle with an arcade’s big claw machine, I barely grasped my prize before it slipped from my fingers — it crashed and ricocheted back to its frozen home. Several attempts later, I finally brought the bag of fillets topside and admired the white flesh shining in the flickering fluorescent light of the laundry room. Gunflint walleyes from August.

Immediately, I was back in the boat with my nephew Wyatt, plying the clear water of the north woods, our jigs dancing across the rocky depths, our offering inhaled every few minutes, telegraphed to our rod tips 25 feet above. Our cooler sloshed with slime-covered Coke cans and ice and golden walleyes. I looked down at my hands, still expecting to see the dark crawler grime embedded in the cracks of my fingernails. I sighed, realizing that day was six months ago already.

A neatly wrapped piece of giant pike completed my freezer haul. Grampa’s spearing season has provided an overabundance, and his hand-delivered pike anchors the perfect fish sandwich, a welcome addition to our assortment of crappies and walleyes.

The last big Baker fish fry was orchestrated by the pike slayer, Grampa Bob. We gathered around his two black guide pans packed with potatoes and onions and trout. The roaring campfire climbed the edges of the pans, flames threatening to breach the rolling oil. The high sun cascaded through the towering white pines, casting shadows and light across our rough-hewn picnic table.

The smell of frying fish from my workbench — a stone’s throw from the basement freezer — takes me back to the island, to the campfire, to a summer well spent.

When winter relinquishes its grip I will be reminded of why I love the north. For now, warm memories and crispy beer-battered walleye will have to suffice.

Bret Baker is an avid angler and award-winning columnist for the Pine Knot News. He lives in Cloquet.


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