Considered a "trash" fish, the Northern Pikeminnow is treated with extreme prejudice by sport fisherman in Oregon. Previously called Squawfish, they're are often killed and thrown back into the river when landed by anglers hoping to hook a salmon or steelhead. The practice is supported by the state's department of fish and wildlife - with a bounty on them in the Columbia river basin of up to eight dollars per fish! This Dudette does not abide. The Pikeminnow is not an invasive species - it is native to Oregon waters and is a natural predator of young salmon. Not only do I sense irrational management of our fisheries and lack of respect for wildlife in the policy, but that kind of thinking grates against the values I grew up with. Namely, that my mother taught my brothers and I that if you purposely KILL an animal, then you EAT that animal.
So I resolved eat the three pound Pikeminnow I caught while fishing for steelhead on the Rogue river with my dad last week. I've heard that Squawfish taste bad - whatever that means. I've heard they're oily. I've heard they're too bony. I suspected the fish would taste fine. I mean, how could a fish that lives in the same waters we eat trout and salmon from - and that eats trout and salmon itself - taste too bad? I decided I'd cook half the fish the way I do other white fleshed freshwater fish I enjoy - filleted and dusted with flour, salt and pepper, then lightly fried. The other half of the fish I would smoke and pressure can along with the steelhead I caught on the Rogue.
As it turns out, fresh fried Pikeminnow tastes great. I found the flesh similar to the Chain Pickerel we catch in upstate New York, which are indeed bony, but delicious - very white, tender and flakey with what I'd describe as sweet meat. As in, mild and not particularly fishy.
There was something unusual about the dark meat along the lateral line in the Pikeminnow - I gathered up a big fork full - way more than you'd get in a normal bite. I thought it tasted a little like…hmm…liver! Personally, I love liver, but I can see how such an unexpected flavor in a fish may have given it a bad name. But most people avoid that little strip of dark meat anyway, because it tastes less than delicious in many species of fish and contains a higher concentration of pollution that the light meat.
As for the boniness of the Pikeminnow, the rib bones are much sturdier than they would be in a similar sized trout, so that if your filleting technique is to cut across those bones then remove them from the fillet, well, you'd dull your knife. I generally fillet by cutting the flesh away from the rib cage, leaving those bones behind on the carcass, so that wasn't an issue. What about pin bones? There are definitely more pin bones in the Pikeminnow. Whereas in trout and salmon, a single row of pin bones doesn't extend much beyond the rib cage, in the Pikeminnow there are "Y" bones that radiate all the way down to the tail. So yeah, it's a pretty bony fish. But if I can sit at the table meticulously cracking every last leg section of a crab to get a few bits of meat, I think I can deal with the occasional bony fish on my dinner plate. Actually, I hope I catch another big Squawfish so I can try this technique (Hank Shaw on Honegiri technique for bony fish).
The smoked half of the Squawfish is currently steaming away in my pressure canner, but I already know that's going to taste great. You could smoke and pressure can an old sock and it would taste great.
I wonder how many people who talk trash about Northern Pikeminnow have ever actually eaten one? The only other person I know who has taken the time to investigate the food value of this fish is my own brother Eli Kimm. (I think my mom created the "you kill it, you eat it" rule especially for him.) Eli claimed they were fine eating, but I've seen him eat an earthworm, so I thought I'd better do my own research. Turns out my older bro was right. Northern Pikeminnow is fine eating, and I'd totally enjoy some fried trash fish again.
*addendum: The smoked and pressure canned fish tasted great but was a little dry relative to the steelhead I prepared the same way. I need to work on my technique, but I would definitely smoke and can Squawfish again. I'd love to make a whitefish salad with it…if only I could find a good bagel in Portland. Some things ARE better in New York.
We caught a lot of teeny Squawfish while fishing for "half-pounder" steelhead on the Rogue river. I was kinda hoping for a big one.
My wish was granted. Dad's got my big Pikeminnow in the net!
Around 17 inches long, dad thinks it's a three-pounder.
I'm going to fillet and skin half of it.
For the other half I'll leave the skin, fins and bones in tact and smoke and can it along with the steelhead I caught.
This half I'm gonna eat fresh.
Dusted with flour, salt and pepper.
Into the frying pan.
Looks good to me. Smells dee-lish.
A splash of soy sauce and a little lemon...all I need now is a steaming bowl of Japanese rice.
You can see the Y bones here.
The dark meat runs along the lateral line. I flaked off most of it and took it in one bite. Not recommended eating, but I wanted to know if it might be the cause of this Pikeminnow's reputation as a bad eating fish. It tasted kinda like liver.
The small amount of dark meat is easily avoided. I thoroughly enjoyed eating fried Squawfish and I'd do it again.