Many people haven’t even heard of shore lunch, but if somebody started a restaurant and served it, I suspect he or she might be quite successful.
In early September, with the kind assistance of Tourism Saskatchewan, I spent a week in northern Saskatchewan at an angler’s paradise called Oliver Lake Wilderness Lodge. During my stay, I not only had fantastic fishing but I was reminded how really great shore lunch can be.
Most Canadian fly-in fishing lodges offer daily shore lunch, and I suspect most first-timers have no clue what it is. Fortunately, for us, our guide at Oliver Lake, Mike Pundyk, was as skilled at cooking shore lunch as he was at finding fish.
Many guides do the same traditional shore lunch every day–deep fry fresh fish and potatoes with a can of beans, chili or corn on the side, but Mike liked to mix it up. But before I go into his innovations, let’s be traditional. Here’s the step-by-step plan for the basic shore lunch.
- Sometime during late morning, you keep one fish big enough to feed three people, but not too big. You don’t want leftovers, nor do you want to take the big fish out of any fishery. A five- or six-pounder is about right.
- Guides know the good lunching spots just like they know the good fishing spots, so about noon the guide pulls into one of these spots for the mid-day feast.
- First, the guide fillets the fish. Every fishing guide I’ve used had filleting down to an art form, giving you nothing but fresh fish, no bones.
- If you want to make yourself useful, gather wood for the fire. Otherwise, it’s best to stay out of the way. Most guides have a routine and don’t like to be interrupted, so instead of trying to help, organize your gear for the afternoon fishing, take a hike, or like me enjoy a short nap.
- For the traditional lunch, guides carry a fold-up grill and a long-handled frying pan, along with long tongs and extended spatula to avoid the fire and hot cooking oil.
- After cutting the fish up into small chucks or strips, the guide shakes it up in a plastic bag of seasoned breading and sets it aside. Guides or lodges often have their own special recipes for the breading. The basic breading includes corn meal, flour, pancake mix, perhaps some Shake ‘n Bake plus a little oregano and cayenne pepper for more flavor.
- The guide then cuts up the potatoes, again in small pieces or strips and sets them aside and gets the fire going. Mike uses what he calls “nature’s gasoline,” a lichen growing on black spruce called “old man’s beard,” to quickly start the fire.
- After cleaning the pan (Mike used a handful of ground-growing lichens, but most guides use paper towels), the guide pours a liter of cooking oil and waits until it gets hot before dumping in the potatoes. Mike uses canola oil, but most Canadian guides still use pure lard. The health conscious among us might think olive oil would be better, but it doesn’t get hot enough for deep-frying.
- An opened can of beans or corn then goes on the grill to cook right in the can.
- Ten minutes later, using the long-handled spatula (sterilized in the fire before using), the guide fishes out the “Canada fries” and sets them aside on paper towels to drain.
- Now, the main course, the fish, goes into the same oil.
When the fish is done (only about 5 minutes cooking time), viola, it’s lunchtime, and a gourmet meal no less, outdoor style. This might not sound too fancy or low-calorie, but does it matter? After all, we’re fishing, right? I call it the world’s finest fish-and-chips meal.
One day, Mike brought his “Sweet Heat” sauce, a blend of maple syrup and hot sauce, and a metal bowl. After frying them in the traditional manner, he put the fish in the bowl and tossed them in the Sweet Heat sauce. It was scrumptious, to say the least, but if you decide to try it, experiment with the sauce in advance, so it doesn’t get too hot.
Here’s a video:
At Oliver Lake, Mike taught me a few shore lunch tricks that I’ll be trying when out camping or even at home (on the BBQ grill, of course, because neighbors frown on me building campfires in the backyard). Instead of deep-frying every day, Mike used heavy-duty foil and the pressure cooker technique to cook fish and spuds, but always with the same can of beans or chili on the grill to go with it.
Shore Lunch Checklist
Following is a checklist of items you need for the traditional shore lunch.
He would tightly seal the fish and spuds in an airtight foil envelope with a double layer on the bottom and a thin spread of butter inside to prevent burning and bake on the grill for 10-15 minutes. That’s the same way I cook fish when backpacking, and the result is the same–the best fish meal you’ll ever have and perhaps a little healthier, too, than the traditional shore lunch.
Before sealing up the envelopes, Mike flavored the fish with various tasty treats such as black bean sauce, Dijon mustard and cream cheese, or salsa with grated cheddar added later (for trout only), all three recipes so deadly delicious we had to resist licking off the foil after the last shred of fish disappeared.
We didn’t have enough days to try all Mike’s recipes, but he told us about a few others I plan to try at home, such as: thick teriyaki sauce and pineapple or soy sauce, brown sugar, onions and lemon juice poured over the fish before baking.
He also told us about two more of his favorites shore lunches:
- Stuffed lake trout, where the fish is not filleted, just cleaned and stuffed with green peppers, onions, dill and lemons, and then baked in foil (3-5 minutes on each side depending on the size of the fish).
- Fish wraps where fish is baked and chunked and then mixed with mayo, dill, oregano “and whatever else I have” and wrapped in a tortillas.
On our last day we had hor’dourves–blackened pike. Mike kept a small pike so we could have some thin fillets, and then he put the frying pan directly on the fire (not on the grill), so it could get “white hot.” He soaked the fillets in butter and added a liberal doze of Cajun spice on both sides before searing them for about a minute on each side. They don’t make adjectives to aptly describe how delicious it was.
The following year, we went to Foster Lake Lodge and master guide Tim Prutton taught us some more shore lunch options, He would fillet the fish out on the lake and have them ready to go when we hit shore to save time. Also, he carried some old blackened coffee pots and cooked hot tea with every shore lunch, especially great on those chilly September days. Instead of putting the beans or corn on the grill, where the bottom of the can sometimes burned but the top was cold, he put them in a pot of water and boiled them, which meant no burning and an even, just-right temperature for the whole can. Foster Lake also packed the spuds already diced to save time at lunch.
Perhaps the best shore lunch I’ve ever had was at Foster Lake when Tim cooked fish chowder (one pan each with pike and lake trout). It started with a base mixed up back at the lodge (with “secret ingredients,” I’m told) with fish and cream of mushroom and cheddar soup added and accompanied by Bannock, which is like Indian Fry Bread, but with salt instead of sugar added for flavor. Bannock is remarkably simple–only flour, baking soda, salt and water, and then deep fried in canola oil–and remarkably tasty, too, especially with the hot chowder.
Tim also told us about a Chinese-style “sweet and sour Fish” recipe, which sounded yummy, but that we didn’t have another day to experience it, regrettably.
After lunch, comes the one downside of shore lunch. Even hardcore anglers like me must fight off the urge to take a long nap instead of getting back in the boat. At Oliver Lake, napping was so easy, with six-inches of lichens coating the landscape like a down comforter.
So, there you go. If you can’t afford the time and money for a fly-in fishing trip in the north country to have your shore lunch, you can at least enjoy it next time you go fishing or car camping at a nearby lake or stream–or try baked options on your backyard grill. Bon Appétit!
For a chronology of my articles on fishing the north country of Saskatchewan, click here.