Tomorrow 40 of the world's best bass fishermen start casting for bass in the upper Chesapeake Bay complex, and not a single one of them would be caught dead with a dead bass, never mind eating one.
The occasion is the three-day, 21st annual BASS Masters Classic, the biggest event anywhere in competitive fishing. First place alone is worth $50,000.
In all bass fishing, the emphasis is on catching, but with the pros it's important that their catch be released alive. Matter of fact, on the BASS pro tour, anglers are fined points for fish that are weighed in dead, thus about 98 percent of all bass taken in BTC competition are returned to the water alive immediately upon being weighed.
But that's professional fishing, a big money sport in which a fellow can win enough money to eat in the finest seafood restaurants for a lifetime. Many other of the nation's 30 million bass chasers fish for the sport, and voluntarily release their catches.
And there are those who fish for something to eat. They appreciate the taste of fresh fish, or perhaps they live on a tight budget. Hey, there's nothing wrong with keeping some bass for food on the table. Sometimes, I think all the fanfare on releasing bass is a bit too much in non-competitive fishing.
Bass are a common fish, very prolific, and certainly good to eat. They're not my first choice for the table, but the flesh is white and firm, though not as flavorful as say a walleye, northern pike, rockfish or yellow perch.
All states have strict creel limits on bass; in Maryand we're allowed five largemouth bass and five smallmouth bass a day. But, first one has to catch them.
So, harbor no guilt feeling about keeping a few bass; put back what you won't eat promptly and enjoy the rest. My wife's favorite freshwater fish is bass -- probably because it is less boney for its size than other sweetwater fish, thus when bass'n I ignore the frowns of the occasional purist and keep one large bass, or several smaller ones for dinner.
That is, if I am fortunate enough to catch them.
In the Burton kitchen, bass are usually fried, broiled or grilled over coals. The occasional fish of five pounds or more is stuffed and baked, but bass that big are of trophy size, and are the exception. Most bass are one to two pounds. Following are some ideas.
This simple but tasty recipe is modified from one I got many years ago from the Pennsylvania Anglers Cookbook (published by Pennsylvania Fish Commission, Box 1673 Harrisburg, Pa. 17120) and credited to David M. Mohnach of Prospect Park, Pa. The garlic and seasoning adds a bit of zest to a fish I consider a bit bland. It certainly has no "fishy" taste.
Garlic Broiled Bass
Four bass, scaled and dressed with heads and tails removed
3 fresh garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons black seafood seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup fresh parsley
Juice of two lemons
In a shallow baking pan, arrange bass, and sprinkle evenly with black seasoning, salt, olive oil, garlic and half of the parsley. Broil four inches from source of the heat for five to seven minutes on each side until fish tests done with the standard fork test. Sprinkle lemon and remaining parsley over fish.
If you prefer, this recipe -- which is also good for other white-fleshed fish -- applies to a charcoal grill, but be sure and oil the grid well to prevent sticking. Break the skin when turning, and the fish falls apart. Also, if you place a cover on the cooker to insure even doneness inside, reduce cooking time on each side by a minute or two. Don't overcook bass. It's not a real moist fish, and quickly loses flavor and texture. And don't peel away the skin; not only is it tasty, but it's also nutritious.
Though I prefer a dry batter (usually an equal mix of cornmeal and instant potatoes) bass are tasty when fried in a beer batter. Mix together two cups all-purpose flour, one-half teaspoon salt, one teaspoon black seafood seasoning, two tablespoons melted butter, a good squirt of lemon, two eggs and a cup of flat beer. Refrigerate for several hours.
Dredge the bass in the batter, then fry in 350 to 375-degree cast iron frying pan until golden on one side, and turn. Use only enough cooking oil to do the frying. Or, if you prefer, fish can be deep-fried, but the calorie count skyrockets.
Still another adaptation is to dredge the fish in the wet batter, then oven fry. After dredging, sprinkle fish with dry breadcrumbs, or perhaps Grapenuts with a few slivered almonds added, (or even mashed potato flakes) and oven fry in a well greased cast iron pan for 10 to 15 minutes at 550 degrees.