Harvest Kitchen Series: Honey Baked Walleye

8 29 Walleye Recipe

Like most readers, I’m not a master chef – just a guy who loves to hunt, fish, and eat what he harvests. If success afield and family schedule allows, this series will highlight a new game or fish dish each month. I’ll cover all the details from take to table, and everyone will benefit with a collection of easy, everyday meals harvested from nature’s pantry and celebrated in the home kitchen.  

The Take

Walleye is one of the tastiest mild fish in the northern United States, and there’s no better place to target them than Lake Erie, where more than 75-million catchable, legal-sized walleyes are estimated to inhabit the 9,940 square-mile lake.

During the late summer months, many of the fish head east toward New York state to find deeper water and can be found hanging around the thermocline layer, where sun-warmed surface temperatures switch over to more comfortable living conditions at much colder depths. In southeast Erie, that’s about 80- to 90-feet down and about six miles from the western New York shoreline.

Knowing fresh, white, flaky fillets are prime for the taking, I traveled to Chautauqua County, N.Y. and lined up a pair of charters from the Dunkirk area, where NYSDEC Lake Erie Unit Leader Jason Robinson used an alluring term to describe the totally wild fishery — “unprecedented.”

“People will look back on this timeframe as the good old days,” Robinson said. “We’ve experienced a seven-year run of moderate to superb hatches with a record setting hatch in 2019. Walleye fishing in this region of Lake Erie is as good now as it has ever been, with quality fish, high catch rates, and fertile conditions.”

Knowing the walleye move daily and that it takes special equipment to find and catch them, I was delighted to fish with two knowledgeable captains who have plenty of experience chasing walleye on the big lake.

Captain Bryan Dusenbury of Creative Woods and Water LLC and Captain TJ Yetzer of Reel Time Charters both fish tournaments and guide anglers from their hard-hitting Crestliner vessels. They use similar techniques, trolling stick baits on side planer boards using 7-to-10-color lead core lines and fancy sonar electronics to locate and mark the fish.

Dusenbury runs Dipsy Divers to get his worm harnesses down deep. So does Yetzer, but he and his son Zach also use down-riggers to get their signature lures — the tantalizing and USA-made “Eye-Fish” spinner blade wire harnesses with nightcrawler trailers —  down into the strike zone.

Trolling at speeds of 1.6-to-2.5 mph, this setup proved quite effective as we averaged more than two walleye per hour on both outings — eight keepers and three throwbacks on the four-hour trip, and 15 keepers, one throwback and one lost nearly to the boat on the six-hour trip. My angling companions and I boated some really impressive fish too — including multiple 5-pounders exceeding 24-inches. Bryan and TJ both clearly knew what they were doing!

It was a lot of fun seeing the technology mark fish, and then watching the lines spring, grabbing the rods, and working the fish into the net. It’s a unique camaraderie that transpires on a charter fishing boat, and something I highly recommend to those who’ve never experienced it.

The captains were generous enough to even clean the fish at the end of our outing, and I came home with several pounds of clean, boneless fillets that would top out at nearly $20 per pound at the fish market.

The Prep

Returning home, I pulled the fish off ice, rinsed it, and zippered out the blood lines to make two individual strips from each fillet. I trimmed them up into equivalent sections that would finish cooking at the same time, with smaller, oddly shaped cuts diced up and added to the walleye “cheeks” pot to reserve for making chowder.

The fillet strips got vacuum sealed into several meal-sized portions, but I saved ten pieces for a family fish bake the Sunday after returning home from my trip. In a wide bowl, I crushed a sleeve of butter-flavored crackers, and added a tablespoon of all-purpose flower, salt, and pepper. In another bowl, I cracked an egg fresh from the chicken coop and poured in about 1/3-cup of my neighbor’s pure, local honey, which I whisked together to make a sweet wash.

I dipped each fillet in the wash, rolled them in the cracker dredge and nestled them in a greased baking dish. I drizzled a little more honey over top of the fillets, added some cracked pepper, and baked the dish for about 25 minutes at 425-degrees in the oven, with a brief three-minute broil at the end to crisp up the tops.

The Table Takeaway

The result was a light, sweet and delicate version of one of the most pleasant-tasting North American fishes. We served it with steak-cut French fries, dill-buttered string beans, and pickled red beet eggs. Daringly bucking the traditional white wine fish pairing, we instead opted for a semi-sweet Fredonia red from Liberty Vineyards in New York, which complemented the flaky walleye, floral-noted honey, and tangy beets.

My kids absolutely demolished the walleye, with my three-year-old daughter proclaiming, “I love it!” several times. I intentionally kept the seasoning fairly tamed down to focus on the mild flavor of the fish, but it was so basic, I kind of felt it was missing a little pep. Perhaps next time, I’d sprinkle in a little garlic, butter or paprika to give it the extra zest I think might take this already delicious dish to the next level.

Fortunately, I have plenty more fillets in the freezer to enjoy throughout the coming months, thanks to Lake Erie’s unprecedented — and unrivaled — walleye fishing opportunities!

Categories: Blog Content, Cooking, Pennsylvania – Tyler Frantz

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