I was able to take most of the last week of my mother’s life off of work. It was an incredible, memorable time. At 93 and with Pulmonary Cardiac Disease, she knew that it was time to go soon.
It was a cloudy Monday in January. I took the day off from teaching, and drove to a bait shop. “ Any lakes where the sunnies are biting?” I asked. “ I don’t care how big they are, I just want to make my mother a last dinner of panfish before she goes.” The man behind the counter nodded quietly nodded. “ Yeah,the’re hittin’ hard up at Chisago. Not big, but you’ll limit out in a coupla hours”. I thanked them, bought wax worms, and even a few minnows in case there were any errant crappies.
When I grew up, I did 90 % of my ice fishing in view of my parent’s window, out on the 3rd lake of Forest Lake, out in the narrows between lake two and three, over by Simmon’s point. For the past few years Forest Lake had slowed down, and besides that, I got bored going to the same place. I couldn’t get skunked today. I needed a mess of sunnies and crappies.
Got to Chisago lake, picked up my bucket ( which served as a chair) and chisel, and followed some tracks out to a likely spot. I still don’t have an electric ice- auger, nor a depth/ fish finder, and I don’t own a fish house. Some guys get really crazy with the gear. I use an ice rod and reel set up, and I ‘m not such a purist that I won’t fish with folks that have the most modern technology. It’s just that I learned how to ice fish from a simpler mental place, and I do best when I follow my instincts.
I found some lightly frozen holes, and opened them up with my spud. Then scooped off the ice, and checked the depth. About 15 feet deep. Good. I put down two lines, at about a foot off the bottom: one with a minnow, the other with a grub.
It wasn’t long before I was pulling up a wiggly sunfish, on the line with a minnow! It wasn’t huge, but big enough to eat. I threw it on the ice and after a few flops, it quick-froze. This was going to be quick All I can remember is fairly nonstop motion of pulling up sunfish, re-baiting the hook, and putting the line back down. Oh yes, after about 10 fish, I did get bitten off by a northern, and had to retie a new hook on.
My hands were cold, and by 11:00 I had 20 sunfish and 3 crappies. This was enough fish. I packed up, and walked back to the car, drove to mom’s house.
“Hey mom! How ya doin?” “ Hey Todd! Good to see you! What have you got?’
I showed her the bucket of fish, like I had several thousand of times growing up. Because of Macular degeneration and failing eyesight in the other eye, she could barely see. “ Yup, stinks like fish!”
“Debbie, the personal care attendant agreed. “ Looks like I don’t have to make lunch for you guys!” “ Do you want to stay for some fish?” “ Nah, I’ll just leave you two . Have a good time. See you tomorrow!” Debbie and mom were good friends; Mom was always encouraging younger woman.
I sharpened my Rapala fish knife, and started to filet the panfish, the way my oldest brother Irv had taught me forty years ago. Some fish were already lightly frozen, which made them easier to clean. In about 20 minutes, I had a stack of small but boneless pieces of fish.
I ground up the saltine crackers for the batter, and cracked an egg & some half and half for dipping. I was ready to fry. But wait…. Where is the Crisco?
It had to be somewhere. Finally I asked Mom where she put it.
“ Damnit I wish I could see. Are you sure it’s not on the shelf under the phone? Maybe there is some in the pantry, you know near the garlic salt?” I looked. None to be found. “ Well, there’s some olive oil.” “ Yuck. You can’t cook with it… it burns too easily. Why does Doug want me to eat that crap!”
This was a conundrum. I knew not to go around “ improving” mom’s basic recipes. Once, when Sue had made apple slices with vegetable shortening and organic brown wheat flour, and half the sugar, Mom didn’t say anything to her directly but later bitterly complained. “ If you’re going to sin, don’t forget to tip the whorehouse!!” she quipped.
“ Should I borrow Crisco from from the neighbors? I could go to town” “ Nah. There’s some butter in the fridge- use that” “ But mom! That ‘ll kill you!” I gasped. She grinned evilly “ Bring it on!”.
I turned on the burner, and fan, and used butter instead of Crisco to brown those sunnie fillets. In about ten minutes, we had a plate full of fish to split.
“ Todd, you know I’ve eaten fish all over the world; China, Russia, Hong Kong. I’ve even eaten your damn trout. But there is nothing like sunnies and crappies from a winter lake, made with cracker crumbs. This is the best fish I have ever eaten! I’ll never forget this. Thank you very much!”
With that,we finished the plate of sunnies, looked out at the grey clouds over the frozen lake. It was indeed Mom’s last dinner of sunfish, and I was honored to have been able to fry them, in butter.