Lake to Table + Ottawa National Forest, UP

Mike is one of my many awesome Gramann cousins, and he’s always had a connection with nature that I’ve envied. Since childhood, he’s always sought interesting adventures in the outdoors, whether it be hunting, exploring, or protecting it during a stint working for the DNR. In high school he canoed Minnesota’s boundary waters multiple times on his own and leading groups of youngsters through his church’s youth group program, and I remember thinking he was just about the most badass for taking that on more than once. He currently lives, if not completely self-sufficiently, very close to that, on a custom homestead in Michigan’s UP, where he takes on all sorts of projects, and I don’t mean simply in raising three adorable kiddos with his wife Rachel. He documents it all here: duenorthwoods.com.

Being a proud Sconnie and cooking enthusiast, Lent is a wonderful time of year. While I don’t celebrate it myself, I very much appreciate that my social media feed is full with pictures of deep fried aquatic goodness. The golden fried fish, potato of some sort, coleslaw, and rye bread all join forces to make a meal fit for kings; the Friday night fish fry. It is only made better by an Old Fashioned, the required beverage for a feast such as this. The thing is, while the basic components seem simple, there is much contention over the finer points.

The rye bread-Is it dark, light, or marbled?  With a slice of raw onion, or without? The slaw-Is it creamy, or vinegar based? The potato-Is it baked, waffled, crinkle cut, hand cut, pancaked, or made into a salad of Germanic origin?

Believe it or not-those are the easy decisions. The most loyalty, and therefore, the most debate, comes with the namesake ingredient of the fish fry, the fish. Hand breaded or beer battered both have their merits, but is of little consequence when compared to the type of fish being cooked.  Perch, walleye, cod, haddock, or even something else, I imagine the best species of fish has been debated since the first supper clubs opened in Wisconsin. The problem with this multiplayer rivalry is that it overlooks the single most important factor. Did you, or someone you love, catch the fish?

I’m a lousy fisherman. I’ll be honest from the get-go. The thought of putting a worm covered hook or slimy minnow on a string, and bringing nothing home, violates my sensibilities. That is what a lot of “fishing” is, which is why I much prefer “catching.” You see, if I don’t bring fish home, I don’t get to have the best fish fry, ever. Why is it the best ever? It’s a simple concept: lake to table.

The farm to table idea has exploded as a restaurant concept.  People are realizing benefits of a shorter delivery route, and taking advantage of quality and freshness that can’t make the several hundred mile journey in the back of a delivery van. Fish is definitely one of those ingredients that benefits from a short trip. I would put a fresh caught bass, a less desirable fish, over off the truck frozen cod, any day. It’s simple, when it comes to fish, fresh is best. I can’t think of a fresher way to get fish, than to pull it off the hook yourself. But while the freshness is an important benefit in the lake to table concept, I believe it to be a very small part of the equation. What went into getting that fish is MUCH more important.

Heidi, our daughter, turned two a few weeks ago, and her younger brother, Oliver, came into the world a month earlier than that. Their Grandma and Grandpa obviously had to visit that weekend. Their stays are always special. We don’t see them as often as we used to, having moved from Wisconsin to the Ottawa National Forest, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In addition to the birthday festivities, ice fishing was definitely part of the weekend plan for my dad and me. We both have a huge love of the outdoors, and love to spend the time together. Originally, we had planned a several mile snowmobile excursion through the forest to a lake that sees no winter traffic. The roads are impassible for cars and trucks this time of year, as the snow was 2 feet deep. Extreme bitter cold caused us to change our plans, as we didn’t want to risk mechanical failure in the deep woods, given those conditions. Instead we opted for a closer lake, one where the roads were still passable by car.

The rumble of the ice is always a spooky sound. The thumps, cracks, and what best can be described as an “alien spaceship” sound means the ice is building, and those noises were abundant on the ice that day. There was another group of fishermen on the lake, who kindly advised us to fish shallower for the best luck, after seeing we had set our tipups (fish traps) too deep. People around here are always so friendly.

Much of our gear is homemade. I use my late grandfather’s tip-ups he made. My father built the electric ice auger, the tool used to drill holes in the ice. Homemade skimmers clean the ice chunks out of the holes, after they’re drilled. My father's tipups, also homemade, have names wood-burned on them, from when I was a kid. Each of us in the family had our name on 3 tipups. This way, there was no disputing who caught the fish. They also have statistics for any fish of notable size burned into them. One tipup which bears my name, has a mark for a 34” northern pike. The fish actually hangs on the wall over my left shoulder as I write this. All of this kit adds another level of sentiment to the act of fishing, and brings up wonderful memories.

Upon resetting our gear in shallow waters, we quickly learned the advice from the kind stranger was good, and we had a 25” pike on the ice. The fishing here was easy, and by mid-afternoon we headed home with plenty of fish for the fry.

I think I’ll save the details for my recipe for another time, but it isn’t anything complicated. We all sat down to a meal of breaded pike with fresh cut fries that evening. We talked about the effort that went into catching the fish, the stories surrounding the ones we missed, and the memories of past fishing trips. It was the best fish fry ever, as usual.

It was so good, in fact, that we were encouraged to keep the tradition going. It was time for Nathaniel, my three year old son, to help Bapa (Grandpa) catch fish. Early the next morning, three generations of Gramann men spent some time on the ice, and Nathaniel was able to bring his first fish “from the lake to our table."