Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about northern pike. Other people in spring are thinking about walleye. Walleye, I like to say, is fish for people who don’t like fish. And they are wimpy fish, too, so there.
With ice breakup our state fish in on the prowl, hungry, and so am I. Get yourself in the right place, and you can catch pike on almost anything you tie on. Some people use hotdogs for bait. My usual recourse is to that classic offering known as the Daredevil, a traditional red-and-white spoon.
A Daredevil is a striking ornament of color on the lip of a ten-pound pike breaking fully clear of a crystal prairie slough under an azure sky of spring.
The pike is a predator, and so am I, I suppose. I am a great admirer of the author Michael Pollan, whose book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, culminates with the eating of a wild pig.
Of course, I have a predilection to over-think things, and so tend to invest hunting and fishing on the prairies with all sorts of liberal-arts garbage from history, literature, and philosophy, to wax verbose about the sensuality of Labrador retrievers and the code of the prairie sportsman - I know I should say sports-person, but it’s still kind of a gender thing.
The adherent to the code of the prairie sportsman - a belief system that amalgamates the values of our pioneer forebears, who killed for subsistence, and the gentlemanly ethics of aristocrats like Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell - the adherent to such a code not only revels in the field and stream but also acquires fine foods of identifiable origin. I not only can tell you the story of the pike or rooster you are eating, I can give you coordinates.
The code requires that we handle fish and game with respect, skill, and joy. So, venison has been the dominant protein in our house this winter, venison in many forms. It started with venison sauerbraten, a roast that evokes my ancestry, and runs the gamut to venison curry, which I first tasted at a country school picnic in New Zealand and came home to replicate.
Cubing a deep-red venison roast for the curry, I got to observing and thinking - at some peril to my hands wielding a sharp boning knife - and what I thought was, oh my, this is good meat. The next night I had similar thoughts while prepping a pheasant for a fricassee.
I mention this because however popular the predatory outdoor sports may be, there is still a tension between modern tastes and ancient foods, or at least a failure to realize and exploit the virtues of such fare. I mean, if venison sausage is your one-trick pony, then you’re missing out on a lot. You’re putting the prairie into your freezer, but you’re not bringing it forth in fullness and joy.
And now I’m thinking about pike. This includes plans for grilled pike, pike fishcakes, pike hotdish, pickled pike, pike chowder, and even pike bouillabaisse. I envision pike with walking onions and fresh asparagus from the prairie garden.
Most of all, I am thinking about that toothy fish leaping into the air shaking a Daredevil on his lip - and maybe shaking it free to spit it right back at me.
Geez, it’s been a long winter.