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updated: 1/9/2013 12:38 PM

'Poor man's lobster' makes for a rich family tradition

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BOULDER JUNCTION, Wis. -- Deer and duck hunters have their own rituals that have been observed and passed along through the ages. Ice fishermen are no different.

And over the last 50 years or so, I have learned that ice fishermen are a tougher breed.

Now, I claim that based strictly on my own personal experiences and associations in the realm of super-frigid winter territories.

Norvel Grandsman has been hauling his ice shanty onto a couple of the lakes around here just so he could spend some quiet time with his two sons and grandson.

Of course, I have never found an ice shanty community to be overly quiet, neither inside the shelter nor out of it.

Grandsman fancies himself somewhat of an expert when it comes to catching jumbo bluegills. But his favorite gig is when he's out for the "real meat," meaning eelpout.

Even though the Brainerd, Minn., ice fishermen go crazy when their annual eelpout derby is held each winter in early February, there are quite a few others in the know who relish nothing more than a plate of "lawyer fish" sitting alongside some boiled red potatoes.

The eelpout has a few other colorful names including, burbot, pout, snakefish, slimebag, and pain in the butt.

But because I was tutored by some of the more exotic winter chefs, I came to learn that the eelpout can be a terrific meal.

My first "pout" experience was in 1970. I was ensconced in a permanent wooden shanty on Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota. With me were the brothers Lindner, Ron and Al, along with six dozen minnows, lots of food, and sleeping bags.

This ice house had bunk beds, an L.P. gas heater, and a wooden floor with fishing squares already cut out for instant use.

I was living in the Twin Cities then, and the Lindners suggested I fish with them to gather material for a column in the old Fins and Feathers Magazine.

The bite was hot and heavy for a bony fish called Tullibee. Lake Herring, Cisco and Inland Tullibee are the same fish. They serve as one of the main items on the menu for walleyes and other predatory fish. The pile of Tullibee outside the shanty rose to a height of 3 feet. The brothers told me one of their friends would feed the fish to their dogs once most of the bones were removed.

And then darkness arrived. We wore our parkas inside because it was 45 degrees below zero outside.

We rigged our rods to a bell that was supposed to ring when a fish swallowed a minnow. Just after midnight all three bells went off. We assumed a school of walleyes went for the bait, but in the end we brought three eelpout up to the surface. While it was a major disappointment for those guys, I saw a meal in the making.

Anyway, Grandsman is like me -- or perhaps it's the other way around. He taught his sons and grandsons how to cook an eelpout. Like many others, Norvel preferred to cut strips of meat off the fish, season them, and then boil them in a pot of onions and potatoes. The common name for this concoction is "poor man's lobster."

In Door County, the specialty is boiled whitefish with onions and potatoes. Similar dishes are consumed in parts of Ontario.

On one fishing trip in the sub-Arctic years ago, noted photographer and chef Mike Seeling boiled fresh lake trout with the potato-onion combo. We ate like royalty.

Norvel told me his family loves the "lobster," and instructs him just before every expedition to bring home a couple eelpout so the family can share in the great feast.

Grandsman's son Jesse is teaching his 10-year-old boy how to enjoy the bounty and wonders of the outdoors.

"I hope my son understands how this ice fishing outing is an important event for our three generations," Jesse said. "And it's my wish he can pass this along to his sons and daughters when he becomes a parent."

•Contact Mike Jackson at angler88@comcast.net, and catch his radio show 6-7 a.m. Sundays on WSBC 1240-AM and live-streamed at www.mikejacksonoutdoors.com.

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