January 22

Fishing for the ultimate frozen dinner in Maine

Hardy anglers get out on the ice equipped to have the freshest of fish to fry.

By Mary Pols mpols@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

While his favorite cast iron skillet was heating up on the camp stove, Josh Sparks knelt on the ice to fillet the 13-inch brook trout he had just pulled from Lower Range Pond. We could have gone to his New Gloucester home to cook it, but he promised “it will never taste better than it does out here.”

click image to enlarge

Josh Sparks of New Gloucester fries his fresh catch – a brook trout pulled from the chilly waters of Lower Range Pond in Poland – on his Coleman stove.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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A brook trout that Josh Sparks caught and filleted on Lower Range Pond fries in a skillet on a stove that Sparks set up on the pond while still fishing.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

Recipes for ‘fried anything’ and other fish-delishness

Smoked Smelts a la Merriman

This recipe comes from Ralph Merriman of Harpswell. He’s promised to make us some as soon as the smelts are really running. We can’t wait.

180 to 200 smelts, cleaned, heads removed

11/2 cups of peach, pear or apple jelly (he uses homemade from his orchard, peach is the best)

1/2 cup of seasoned salt (Merriman is a big believer in Lawry’s)

Ground black pepper to taste

Either vinegar or water to make the mixture a thin syrup consistency

Merriman says you can add any other seasonings you desire.

Put marinade and fish in a glass or stainless steel pot (not aluminum) or a large plastic food-safe bag (less desirable because the fins or bones might puncture the bag) and soak, refrigerated, overnight.

In the morning, take the smelts and carefully arrange them in your smoker without trying to wipe off any excess marinade.

Let them sit out long enough for the surface to slightly dry before you put them in your smoker.

I use fresh-cut applewood chips from the small branches I prune from my trees. It saves having to soak dried wood chips and I think the natural moisture from the wood enhances the final flavoring of the smoke.

Follow the directions for your smoker. I use a 30+ year-old Little Chief Smoker and it takes from 8 to 24 hours, depending on outside temps and fish size.

Merriman’s Secret for Fried Anything

Merriman isn’t that interested in anything but smelt caught on the Androscoggin in Brunswick – those state health guidelines suggesting no more than four meals per year from freshwater fish in the river aren’t exactly appetizing and since the smelts come up from the sea, there are no eating restrictions on them. So when he makes this fish fry in the winter, he generally uses smelts, but any fish will do.

The origin of this recipe is a bit fuzzy, but Merriman remembers that in his childhood, his family always went fishing with a bag of flour for frying up whatever they caught. At some point, the flour got left behind and he subbed in pancake mix. He’s never gone back.

1/2 cup of a ‘complete’ pancake mix; he uses Krusteaz right now, but Aunt Jemima comes into his rotation frequently

1 teaspoon of seasoning salt, Lawry’s is his preference

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper,

Any other seasoning you like, such as onion/garlic salt, dill, etc.

Butter for frying

Mix the dry ingredients in a plastic bag.

Pat fish reasonably dry, add them to the bag and shake. Don’t let them sit in the mixture or they will “cake up” too much. The just really need a good dusting. Fry on a medium-high heat, flipping once as they lightly brown on each side.

Michelle Smith’s Trout Patties

Boil the trout until cooked (or substitute in whatever you’ve caught).

Let it cool for a few minutes and then take off the meat (eat the cheeks, you earned it).

Peel a medium baked potato (microwave is fastest/easiest way to get this).

Combine the trout, potato, some finely chopped/minced onion, salt and pepper in a bowl. Add an egg to bind the ingredients and mix well. Divide the mixture in half.

Make patties out of the mixture with a bit of mozzarella cheese in the center of each (or any cheese that melts well; this is optional, but Smith likes to incorporate cheese in as many fish dishes as possible).

In a frying pan with a bit of olive oil warm and brown the patties on both sides to melt the cheese and so the egg binding cooks through.


One 14-inch trout serves two … unless you are REALLY hungry.

Josh Sparks’ Cusk Chowder with Maple Twist

When Sparks is in the mood for chowder, he goes hunting specifically for cusk, one of those fish that gets dubbed “the poor man’s lobster” because of its firm white flesh. He makes a classic chowder and then a spicy variation (see end notes).

Take six pieces of bacon and cut into small pieces, about an inch square. Let it heat up and then add 2 medium chopped onions and saute until the onions soften. (If the bacon isn’t fatty enough, add some butter.)

When the onions are softened, add 1/2 stick of butter, and 4 cups of chicken stock.

Peel and chop 5 potatoes into a good size to pick up on a soup spoon and add to mixture.

Peel and chop 2 carrots (optional, Sparks adds them for a little color).

Bring the stock to a boil, reduce heat and simmer vegetables for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Lay cusk fillets (about 2 pounds) on top of the chowder and let it simmer long enough until the fish begins to break up.

Add a can of evaporated milk if you have it (Sparks likes this instead of cream) and enough milk to bring the chowder to the desired consistency. Simmer without boiling for at least 30 minutes.

Ideally chowder sits outside to cool to bring the flavors together. Then it can be rewarmed when you’re ready to serve.

In the last 10 minutes of the warming process, stir in about 2 to 3 tablespoons of maple syrup. Real maple syrup, “not that fake stuff,” Sparks cautions.

For a spicy variation, sub in hot sausage for the bacon and add a diced up jalapeno with the onions.

Skip the syrup in this version, but if you’d like to add decadence in another manner, toss in a big handful of grated cheddar or mozarella cheese.

Josh Sparks’ Desirable Undesirable Baked Stuffed Fish Fillets

A lot of yellow perch and crappies end up tossed on the ice for eagles to pick over; they’re not the fish most ice fishermen and women are after.

But Sparks actively hunts for them – he thinks they are the best eating.

This recipe would work well with a whole fish as well, but most of the perch and crappies he catches are small (a “really big crappie might be a pound or a pound and a half,” he said).

His solution is to fillet a bunch of fish (he can eat the fillets from 4 to 5 fish all by himself) and cook them in a baking dish with stuffing.

This recipe is for 12 to 15 fish.

Fillet your catch and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mince 3 stalks of celery and one large onion into a fine dice. Cook over medium heat in 1/2 stick of butter until softened, but don’t allow to carmelize.

Move to bowl, allow to cool and mix in 12 ounces of crabmeat.

Shake in 1 cup of Italian-s.tyle bread crumbs and 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan and blend.

Lay fish fillets in a single layer in buttered baking dish. Pat bread and crab mixture on top. If you have more fish, add another layer on top.

Cover with foil and cook for 12 to 15 minutes until the fish is nearly cooked through, then pull off foil and bake for 5 more minutes to get a slight crust on the stuffing.

Josh Sparks’ Only When Icy Beer Battered Fish

If he pulls in enough perch, Sparks sets himself up for a big fish fry with friends, using Shipyard’s seasonal Applehead beer (available December through March).

He issued this warning: “If I am cooking 6 or 7 fish, I do a lot of cooking but I don’t do a lot of measuring.” But we tinkered with amounts.

2 to 3 pounds of fish fillets, cut into whatever shape you choose.

Sift about 2 cups of flour into a bowl, add at least 1 tablespoon of coarse salt and several grinds of pepper, to taste.

Slowly pour in a 12-ounce bottle of Applehead beer, stirring with a fork as you go.

It shouldn’t be “like a dough,” Sparks said. “Kind of runny but thick enough to stick to the fish.”

Add a second bottle of beer as needed.

Drop in a deep fryer if you have one, if not, use a deep cast iron pan and heat enough oil to have at least an inch depth in the pan.

Use vegetable oil or your preference (but not olive oil).

Cook until crisp on one side, then flip carefully with tongs and cook the other side.

Lay on paper towels to absorb grease and serve with tartar sauce, ketchup or a squeeze of lemon, although Sparks says, “I don’t usually get that fancy.”

Then he dropped a fat chunk of butter into the pan and pulled out a salt cellar filled with salt, pepper and a few other things – ground cumin and some garlic salt, left over from a recent Mexican night – and shook a little onto the fish.

Ice shacks went up early around Maine this season, thanks to December’s visit from the polar vortex, and have stayed put despite the recent January thaw. Driving by these frozen lakes or rivers, and spotting either these veritable villages of huts or someone like Sparks, hightailing it from hole to hole whenever one of the orange flags on his traps alerts him to a bite, the question arises, what happens to all the fish getting hauled out from those frigid chambers?

The answer is a multitude of dishes, ranging from chowders to baked whole fish stuffed with crab meat to salmon loaded with onions and cooked in foil on an open fire. There are fishermen and women for whom a fish cake, made with just about any species from Maine waters, is the perfect dinner.

In Caribou, Michelle Smith, a relative newcomer to ice fishing with five years experience, is so eager to explore new frontiers with her fish cuisine that she hardly ever repeats a dish. “To me, that’s part of the fun,” she said. “You hunt for the fish and then you see what you can do with it.” Often that involves cheese, because Smith loves cheese, and culinary rules like the ones Italians put forth (cheese and fish should never be together) don’t hold in her household.

This winter she started posting pictures of her creations on the popular website IceShanty.com, where her precise recipes and enticing shots of her suppers draw many admirers. (More typical of IceShanty.com recipes are terse instructions like these: “1 lb of W Perch fillets, 1 heaping tsp of potato flour, a dash of nutmeg, Place in food processer, Make patties and fry until brown.” Punctuation and spelling the cook’s own.)

Salmon is Smith’s favorite fish to work with, but she hasn’t caught any yet this year. Meanwhile Sparks, 38, admits he’s a little odd in that he’s not that interested in brook trout and he’d happily eat fish other fishermen aren’t excited about, like crappies (an invasive species), pickerel and yellow perch.

There are things he looks out for though: If he’s in the mood for a chowder sweetened with a little maple syrup, there’s nothing better than cusk, he said. Perch dipped in beer batter and fried is one of his favorites, which justifies that snowy day he and friends passed in early 2013, catching 100 fish in four hours while a blizzard blew around them. If there’s a fish he’s after, he’ll walk two hours to get to a good spot on a frozen lake, dragging a sled loaded with traps, an electric auger and other necessities.


Sparks is open-minded about his catch but others are more focused.

Harpswell resident Ralph Merriman, who keeps not a shack but what his friends and family like to call “the cottage” (ceiling fans, heaters, windows) on the frozen bend of the Androscoggin River just below Topsham’s old Pejepscot Mill, is there primarily for the smelt. He’s got a secret recipe for a perfect fry (see sidebar), but ideally he ends up with 200 or so of the skinny fish that he takes home to smoke (see sidebar).

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

A chunk of butter and a sprinkle of seasonings sizzle in Sparks’ favorite cast iron skillet, above, along with a fillet of just-caught brook trout and, voila, dinner is served.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Josh Sparks holds the brook trout he caught on Lower Range Pond in Poland. On this day he also pulled in a yellow perch, which he claims, along with crappies, are the best eating.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


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