You too, city dweller, can catch your own food
Published: August 24, 2011
Running through sprinklers, playing kickball ’til way after dark, and ditching school to go fishing at the ol’ fishing hole. Ah, memories from halcyon summers long past. But seriously, why the hell do I always picture myself as, uh, white, tow-headed, and clad in little denim overalls? Probably the fusillade of precisely honed commercial messages I’ve been absorbing my entire life. I’m guessing a steady childhood diet of The Andy Griffith Show didn’t help.
But seriously, how (and indeed why) fishing got such a total and effective whitewashing amid the pantheon of saccharine, Vaseline-lensed Middle-Americana has always puzzled me. It’s a fundamentally brutal act, wherein at least one animal is impaled alive (more if you’re using live bait), and the level of raw titillation is directly proportional to the frenzy and desperation of your prey’s struggle for survival. Some sadistic freaks even do it for pure sport. Not that I’m judging, ’cause it’s fun as hell. But I happen to believe that if you’re gonna fish, at least derive some sustenance from it. In which case, it is the only circumstance in which the majority of us will ever engage in the stalking, capturing, and killing of our own food.
Now, it’s not that I especially love fish and find some kind of nobility in their suffering or death so long as it nourishes me. No, it’s more that I like to eat them, and it’s pretty awesome to go out and catch your own—what’s a more direct, tangible reward for one’s effort than food? And that’s just it—catching and eating an animal has this magical varnish of innocence in the context of fishing. Apply the same concept to a mammal (and to a slightly lesser extent, bird) and for some suddenly you’re a Hummer-driving Nazi child-molester. To wit:
Person: Hey honey, I’m gonna go out and procure us a deer/duck/rabbit for dinner, thereby circumventing the insidious and pervasive industrial agriculture and livestock multinationals that seek to control and monetize every aspect of human nutrition.
Person’s Significant Other: Oh no, not a cute little deer/duck/rabbit! You fucking monster, I’m leaving you!
So is it simply that fish are not very cuddly that makes it generally OK to kill them? Or perhaps it’s that they’re not very smart—I mean they’re too stupid to warm their own freaking blood, amirite?
Well, in truth, fish are tricky bastards. It’d be a lot easier to go outside right now and grab a dumb-ass city pigeon with your bare hands than to hook a decent-sized fish in anything but a private, stocked pond, which is generally populated with the fat rich kids of the fish world—well fed, sheltered, unexposed to the usual pressures of survival, and thus easy pickins. Yet even though pigeons are pests and there’s no shortage of them, I’m guessing that strolling down Eastern Avenue toting a dead pigeon wouldn’t quite have the same “aw shucks” cache as a kid mugging for a photo holding up a trout just plucked from the Patterson Park boat lake.
Who knows why, but the bottom line is this: It is the most socially acceptable method of killing animals. And because we are lucky enough to live by the water, even us city folk have fairly ready access to prey. Yes, there are fish to be caught in the Inner Harbor. In fact there are three Maryland Department of Natural Resources-designated fishing spots in the city (Middle Branch Park, Hull Street pier, and Canton pier) where you don’t even need a license, although you do need to register online. An annual license for residents is only $20.50 anyway.
But what’s this you say—eat fish from the Inner Harbor? And catch AIDS plus herpes times mercury poisoning? OK, sure, the harbor is trash-strewn and fetid, opaque with filth even. But how much worse is this really than a festering feedlot or chicken factory? Most people won’t think twice about eating pristinely pinkish-white shrimp from some quasi fast-food chain, even though there’s a good chance it was grown in a literal pool of shit somewhere in Asia and treated with antibiotics that are banned for human consumption here in the United States.
Not a ringing testimonial to the purity of Inner Harbor fauna, I know, but the point is that eating harbor fish is not gonna kill you—the Department of Natural Resources says so (go to tinyurl.com/baltimorefishing)—as long as you don’t, you know, eat them a lot. And this is no secret: On a recent Saturday night, the Boston Street waterfront in Canton was crowded with anglers looking to snag some protein. Truth be told, nobody was having much luck, but one of my buddies did manage to hook a striped bass, too small to keep, but a good sign nonetheless.
Somewhat easier fishing can be found in area reservoirs such as Druid Hill Lake and Lake Roland (fun fact: the number of natural lakes in Maryland = zero), where various panfish, or fish that are generally small enough to fit in a frying pan (seriously), can be caught fairly reliably, most often the ubiquitous bluegill, or “sunny.” The only problem with these guys is that their size makes them a pain in the ass to clean, since scaling and filleting even a largish one will only net you two thin, palm-sized slices of meat. But hey, they taste pretty good, and they’re sustenance that you acquired from the world, all by yourself, a rare feat in 21st-century America.
General Fishing Information
You can get a license online and print it out yourself. There are separate licenses depending on where (freshwater, bay/tidal) you want to fish and what (trout, crab) you want to catch; note that the Inner Harbor is considered tidal. Otherwise you can get a license at Walmart. Tochterman’s on Eastern Avenue does not sell licenses. If you get caught fishing without a license, you might get a ticket, or have your fish and/or gear confiscated.
Live bait is sold at the Port Covington Walmart and at Tochterman’s. It’s best to check online to see what’s working at a given spot, but I always get nightcrawlers, which I cut in half before using. People also use cut-up hot dogs, chicken livers, and American cheese, or roll MacGyver style and simply use some balled-up foil. I’ve personally caught loads of bluegill using hot dogs and bologna.
In the city, there are three places you can fish without a license, but you still need to register, which you can do online here. Canton Recreational Pier is at the War Memorial Park on Boston Street. The pier is tiny, but there is a fair amount of shoreline to fish from—it’s rocky, so tread carefully. Then there’s the Hull Street Recreational Pier in Locust Point, at the end of boardwalk where the kayak boathouse is. This is an all-around nice spot, breezy, quiet, with Adirondack chairs around for lounging. Last is an area spanning roughly from Middle Branch Park to the Hanover Street bridge. Lots of shoreline but it’s rocky, and most times there will be others fishing. Other spots include off the Hanover Street Bridge itself, and any publicly accessible area in Fells Point. I couldn’t find any spots near Federal Hill; the whole shoreline seems to be developed now. If you have any good spots you wanna share, leave details in the comments below.
For freshwater fishing (panfish such as bluegill, crappie, perch, and sometimes trout) there’s the dam at Druid Hill Lake and Lake Roland (Robert E. Lee Park is still officially closed, but is supposed to reopen next month, and the lake can still be accessed via trails from Falls Road). The boat lake in Patterson Park and the upper stretch of the Jones Falls (below Lake Roland) are stocked with trout in spring, but they don’t last long.
If you do choose to eat fish from the harbor or any other sketchy waters, the Department of Natural Resources recommends removing the skin before cooking thoroughly.
Even if you manage to catch larger specimens, crappie, bluegill,and perch, while tasty, are a pain to clean. You can find detailed scaling instructions online, but basically you scrape against the grain (scraping tail to head) in order to rip the scales off the skin. This can be done with a knife or even a spoon. It’s best to scale fish outside, before you leave your spot even, to minimize mess. If you do it inside, do it in the sink—the scales will fly everywhere. I’ve also heard of scaling fish with a garden hose, fitted with a high-pressure nozzle, instead of scraping with a butter knife or spoon. Or you can try leaving the scales on, which some folks consider a crispy treat when fried (get the recipe).
Panfish tend to be very lean and lacking in savoriness. This, coupled with their small size, make frying them a good choice—they’re called panfish for a reason, after all. I’ve found that grilling them whole works pretty well too.
Filleting panfish is generally not worth the effort or wasted meat unless the fish are large. Panfish frames (skeleton and scraps) don’t make for a good stock. Also cooking them whole ensures access to the best part of the fish, which are the little pockets of meat in the head, above and behind the eyes, sometimes referred to as the cheeks. On panfish the cheeks are tiny—I use chopsticks to get at them. Shut up Josh. Another little tasty treat is the meat attached to the spines of the dorsal fins—just gently peel off the fin and suck the base.
salt and pepper
Salt fish all over generously. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes.
Season flour with salt, pepper and garlic powder, maybe half a teaspon of each to a half-cup of flour, and mix.
After 10 minutes, rinse the fish, pat dry, and coat with flour. Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a frying pan to about medium-hot (just before any smoke is visible), then add two pats of butter and allow to melt.
Fry the fish until browned on each side. Drain over paper towels.
Serve with hot sauce. I like Crystal Extra Hot.
salt and pepper
Salt fish all over generously. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes.
Combine remaining ingredients and mix to form a marinade.
After 10 minutes rinse the fish, pat dry, and marinate, coating all fish well.
Marinate for at least 30 minutes or up to a couple of hours.
Make sure your grill is hot and the grates are clean and oiled.
Grill fish for about two minutes per side, just long enough to impart some char—they’ll cook fast.
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