RAYMOND — Though many of Maine’s 250,000 licensed fishermen practice catch-and-release, others enjoy the reward of reeling in a choice fish or two to cook in the frying pan, oven or smoker. The eaters include plenty of ice fishermen.

The thing about those fishing for dinner? The simpler the dish, the better, they say. Often butter, salt and pepper is all you need.

“You don’t want sauces to take away the flavor of the fish itself,” said Waterboro fisherman David Lemieux as he fished through the ice at Sebago Lake last weekend.

Lemieux and several others competing in the Sebago Ice Fishing Derby shared their favorite fish recipes – and provided a few tips about eating Maine freshwater fish.

Most important: Remember that the state of Maine warns against eating more than one or two Maine-caught freshwater fish per month – depending on where you catch it – because of pollutants in the water.

Lemeiux is mindful about the state advisory on mercury but admits it can be hard to resist the stockpile of fish he’s caught that he keeps in his freezer. “I love the taste of fish,” he said.

Like others interviewed for this story, Lemeiux said he ice fishes because he loves the outdoors and the pursuit of wild game – also the occasional reward for his patience and toil, a nice fish to eat.

The work of filleting takes experienced anglers just a few minutes. They slice down the belly to just behind the gills, cut off the head, and pull down and back along the belly to remove the head and guts. From there the meat on both sides of the backbone is carved out into nice fillets – the sort the non-anglers buy at the grocery store.

Other ice fishermen cook their fish steps from where they caught it. Richard Bonchuck, a Connecticut resident with a camp on the Penobscot River, and his friend Jim Nagle, also from Connecticut, were hoping to hook a few togue in the Sebago derby. They were kitted out with a portable propane stove and planned to fry up fish sandwiches for lunch. Like Lemieux, Bonchuk is partial to simple preparations. His sandwich secret? Breading the fish with crushed Ritz crackers.

“All the flavor you need is in the crackers: Salt, butter. That’s it,” Bonchuk said.

Bonchuk throws back fish that are low in numbers, such as striped bass, and eats species that are not over-harvested. He was eager to share a special culinary benefit of ice fishing: fish caught in cold weather taste better. “Write that down: It is always better through the ice,” he insisted.

We ran the theory by State Fisheries Biologist Jim Pellerin, who said he hasn’t noticed much difference in taste himself. But science may support Bonchuck’s idea, he added.

“It stands to reason that fish caught in colder water or at colder air temperatures are more quickly cooled down and kept cold, so they are certainly likely to be fresher and the flesh may be firmer,” Pellerin speculated. “In addition perhaps seasonal diets shift or changes … and that could equate to a change in flavor in some cases.”

Bonchuk and Nagle weren’t the only fishermen on the lake that morning dreaming of a fish sandwich. Jacob Mathews of Gray was in pursuit of cusk, not a handsome fish but by many accounts a tasty one.

“You bread it up with bread crumbs – panko bread crumbs – cornmeal, flour and fry it up in a cast-iron pan in hot oil. Get a baguette and add some tartar sauce. That is one good fish sandwich,” said Mathews, who was fishing with his father. The two, who camped on Sebago the night before in fishing shacks, said they like the firm white meat of cusk, pike and largemouth bass.

Lemieux likes largemouth bass, too, as well as the oily taste of the less popular brook trout, despite its many bones – the bass, though, only during ice fishing season, he said, “to avoid the worms.”

As with so many topics among feisty, opinionated fishermen, the question of when fish have the most parasites is up for debate.

All fish have some level of parasites, said Pellerin, our resident expert. “Due to their life cycle, the parasite load can sometimes be less in the winter for some species,” he said circumspectly. “Whether people choose to eat them in the summer, winter or not at all is a personal preference.”