Hunting for Dinner: The Perfect Fish Fry

I have been fishing my whole life; since my grandfather gave me my very first Snoopy fishing pole 35 years ago, I have been hooked (yes, pun intended). I remember that fishing pole just hanging on the wall with all the others poles like it had been there all along and I just knew what to do with it. My family had cabins on Leech Lake most of my life; both sets of grandparents had a cabin on the same shore line one house apart from each other. This is where my parents met and got married, but sadly we no longer have either cabin.


Over the years I have spent a lot of time on that lake catching fish. It might sound cliché, but I remember when you could sit on the dock and catch the allowed limit of walleyes every evening. Fishing was always a big deal for my family and the fishing opener was like a holiday for us. My whole family and all our neighbors would stay up the night before the fishing opener and start fishing at midnight; then we’d stay up until morning catching and filleting fish. The next afternoon everybody would get together and have a big fish fry. All through the summer, whenever we caught enough fish, we would have another fish fry.

My grandmother would fry up all the fish in a well-travelled cast iron skillet. She would get out the rolling pin and smash up Saltine crackers to use as the breading, and then she would dust each fillet with flour, dip it in an egg wash, and coat it with the cracker crumbs. Each fillet was done to perfection and came out golden brown; her breading was light and crisp and never overpowered the fish. We were a Hellman’s tartar sauce family, and I used to really gob on the tartar sauce. Sometimes I wonder if it is the fish I like or if the fish is just a vessel to get the tartar sauce into my mouth. Every now and then when we were out of Hellman’s, Grandma would make homemade tartar sauce – dicing up sweet dill pickles or using whatever pickle relish we had and mixing it in with mayo – and it was incredible.

For many years, Grandma’s fried fish was all I knew. Then, when I was 13, I took my first part time job as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Rochester, MN called Finney’s. On Friday nights they did an all-you-can-eat fish fry special, which was my first experience with a beer-battered fish. They hand-dipped each piece in Finney’s “special beer batter,” which was light and crisp and didn’t take away from the cod or Pollock they used. I remember that they used Old Milwaukee in their beer batter, and even back then it struck me as odd that they would use something like Old Milwaukee and not a better-tasting beer.

Everybody seems to have a preference as to how they fry their fish, and some people get quite defensive about their method or what they coat their fish in. I was probably in my mid 20s before I realized that Shore Lunch was an actual brand of fish breading that you could buy. I had just assumed that for all those years when people raved about “Shore Lunch” they were referring to frying fish right after they caught them. Now, whenever I am at Fleet Farm and walk past the aisle of fish batters, I am amazed at how many different varieties are on the market. I even have a few favorites that I take with me when I go into the Boundary Waters just because they’re more convenient than making my own and packing it in.


Fish filets, ready to be battered and friedFish filets, ready to be battered and fried

Over the years I have played around with how I fry my fish, trying to find the perfect breading or batter. I have tried using everything from Cool Ranch Doritos to pretzels as a breading for fish, but they all come off as too heavy and overpower the fish. Saltine crackers are still my go-to, although I have added a few more ingredients to spice them up. As far as beer batter goes, it took me a while to perfect my beer batter. I tried out several different types of beer trying to find one that added the right flavor to the fish and didn’t overwhelm it. When I’ve been out to eat, I’ve tried beer batters with Guinness and hoppy IPAs and all those strong beers do is cover up the flavor of the fish.


For my taste, I have found that Kolsch style beers make the best beer batters. I like to use Alaskan summer Kolsch, as it is a very balanced beer with a malty-ness that really adds flavor to the batter. The other technique I’ve learned that is essential to making a great beer batter is separating the egg and beating the egg white to a stiff peak. Then, you fold the egg into your batter; it will add air to your batter and make it extremely light and crisp. The key is to add the stiffened egg white just before you start frying your fish.


My family no longer has a cabin on Leech Lake and I don’t get out fishing as much as I used to, but whenever I get enough fish in the freezer I still like to have a good old fashioned fish fry and invite the neighbors or some friends over for dinner. A few weeks ago, I had a day off and headed down to Wabasha to go fishing with a friend of mine and we ended up catching 17 good-sized sunfish and one walleye. As Eric and I were filleting fish that night, I couldn’t help but think about all those nights up at Leech Lake when we would stay up all night catching and cleaning fish. I knew a fish fry was coming and I couldn’t wait.


The fishing haul: 17 sunfish and one walleyeThe fishing haul: 17 sunfish and one walleye


My Beer Batter


This batter should come out light and crisp and not take away from the natural sweetness of the fish.


One batch of batter will cover about 10 panfish fillets.


Beating the beer batterBeating the beer batterIngredients:

  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper
  • Enough beer to make the batter as thick or thin as you like it.
  • 1 egg white whisked to medium white peaks



  1. In a bowl mix together the flour, seasonings and oil
  2. Pour the beer in until you reach the right consistency, it shouldn’t be too runny and you don’t want it to thick either. You want it to be a little thinner than pancake batter.
  3. Whisk the egg white to stiff peaks, and then fold the egg into the batter mixture right before you fry the fish.


To fry fish:

  1. Fill a pan with about 3/4 inch of oil (I prefer Canola and always use a cast iron pan)
  2. Heat your oil to 350 degrees then dredge your fish in flour and dip it into the batter.
  3. Allow the excess batter to run off the fish then lay it in the oil
  4. The fish with fry quickly so it is important to be fast when frying the fish. It will only take about 2 minutes per side depending on the size of your fillets. The batter is really good on small panfish like bluegills and perch but is equally good on walleye and northern bigger fish may take 3-4 minutes per side. You are looking to get it perfectly golden brown.



My Homemade Tartar Sauce



  • 1 cup mayo
  • ½ cup zucchini relish
  • 1 shallot finely diced
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice



  1. Combine all ingredients.

Jamie Carlson lives in Burnsville, MN with his wife, Amanda, and their two kids Eleanor and Charlie. He works as an Rn at the Minneapolis VA hospital. He enjoys hunting, fishing, foraging, and, of course, cooking. He believes that all food can be tasty if it is prepared with care, and he writes about his adventures cooking everything from Pickled Venison Heart to Roasted Dove on his food blog, You Have to Cook it Right. Follow him at @youcookitright. He writes the Hunting for Dinner series for SGT; his last non-hunting post for SGT was Hunting Down Wild Game at the Minnesota State Fair.