Water temps below 50 degrees on many area lakes kept the walleye sluggish but made for some great northern pike fishing on the first days of the season. Our hats are off to those little small-time newspapers: the ones that they give away for free at the gas station, and that consist mainly of advertisements and news of extremely limited interest. Wherever I travel, I always grab one from somewhere. I keep telling myself I should write a letter to the editors of these unsung publications, letting them know they’re doing a great job reporting the same events year after year, and that I only found four or five spelling mistakes.

But this one is the classic, a letter to the editor reprinted from the May 24, 2004 edition of Ely Echo’s North Country Angler. Ely is a small town in Far North Minnesota, and I snagged this copy of the Angler at the outfitters before setting out on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters last spring.

We read it over the fire one evening on an island in Gabbro Lake, and howled.

(To get the full, unfiltered effect, you can view the original letter.)


“Dear Editor:

“Fresh caught freshwater fish has such a great subtle taste, although I appreciate breaded varieties I have always preferred my walleye, bass, and panfish without disguise, well, a little butter and lime or lemon is sort of ‘make-up.’

Looks at camera: We’re talking about fish.

“At the Viking Manor we fed a lot of people a lot of walleye. We pretty much followed the recipe that I developed back in the 1960s as a guide for Widjiwagan, although at Widji we only had lard. Carbs were preferred as four barrel and in a muscle car, and cholesterol was not (yet) a word in a spelling bee.

Relevant information, this, if a bit hard to parse. The scene is now set for: a fish recipe.

“My recipe for melt-in-your-mouth walleye is to get an iron skillet, heat it up a bit and add enough butter so that the fillets will not be covered (this is not a ‘fish boil’)…”

Got that? Not a lot of butter. Just enough to not cover the fillets.

“…Add a little vegetable oil (to keep the butter from scorching), heat the mixture until just before it boils and add the skinless fillets skin side up (if the oil spits you got it too hot). Yes, sides matter.”

Don’t be caught napping! He is gearing up for the most artful one-line non sequitur you will ever see in your lifetime:

“Keep in mind that while I learned to cook on a wood fire, do not scorch the oil.”

There. My mouth hangs open. I am speechless.

“When the fish starts to curl, flip it over and remove the skillet from the heat. The fish will continue to cook.”

Yes, comforting to know that the skillet won’t instantly become stone-cold.

“For those who want sautéed almonds, take some of the butter mixture from the skillet after you flip the fillets, place in a small skillet over low heat, add sliced blanched almonds, stir and turn off the heat.”

Somebody call PBS!

“At the Viking Manor not all walleye was prepared drenched in butter, for many customers broiled or baked was the preferred option. The beauty of walleye is that while breading or cooking oils could complement the flavor, even those patrons with unsophisticated pallets enjoyed the nuances of Walleye au Natural. Not raw, but prepared in a reflector oven or on charcoal or under a broiler.

“The beauty of those methods is that the fish cooks in its own juices, the result being an even more delicate flavor.”

Patrons? Nuances? Unsophisticated pallets?

You do realize this is northern Minnesota you’re addressing?

“Now that I live on the East Coast…”


“…I have a larger variety of species of fresh fish and shellfish available, and continue to create recipes using various herbs and spices. However, I still favor fresh caught walleye for the delicate taste.”

How diplomatic of you.

“My experience has been such that I have learned that the most elaborate presentation is just that, a presentation. Sauces and garnishes are really in a class of table presentation, like china or silver. While they add to the experience, ultimately the primary course is what matters.”

See, this is what I love about the small-town paper. They’re dying for material to print. Their letters-to-the-editor aren’t potshots by political snipers; they’re rich and panoramic, with multiple levels of meaning.

You can just see what happened to this fellow. He used to live in northern Minnesota and go camping and fishing like a normal person. Somewhere along the line, though, he moved out to the East Coast, and began to fancy himself an elite gourmet critic, and before you know it he’s classifying sauces and garnishes.

He probably feels guilty about moving east, though, and he’s trying to soothe his conscience by this effort to connect with his past.

“The fanciest table setting of fine china and floral decoration, accompanying the filet served with a perfect sauce and wine of the proper vintage, does not measure up to my memories of sitting at a USFS campsite on Basswood in the early July evening of 1969.”

Somehow that sentence is like a small set of balance scales with a Newholland tractor on either side.

“It was a trip I had taken many times, so I left the Kodak camera behind, somehow I knew that the camera of my mind would capture and save that which was important. Thirty-five years later I have merely to close my eyes and I can return to the time that I sat there, on the shore of Basswood lake.”

See? You can just see the guilt just dripping off of all those clichés. Guilt from moving away from his roots, to the east coast of all places. Guilt from betraying his very nature with all those nuances and sauces and garnishes. Oh, to return to the purer, simple pleasures of nature! But it’s too late, Mike. You made your choice. There’s no going back.

“I can relive the total sensory experience of eating walleye accompanied by reflector oven baked (sweet) cornbread and Basswood water from a tin cup, while aware of the visual transition of the sky as night approached, immersed in the quiet heaviness that guides the late afternoon into the darkness of evening, accompanied by the call of loons.”

And the grand finale wraps it up. You sit there and wait for one more burst of fervent prose, and it takes awhile to realize that he’s fired his last shot and it’s time to grab the chairs and go home.


ADDENDUM — This post was the subject of a reader complaint, to which I responded publicly (due to the complaintiff’s having left an incorrect return address).

"There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad."
—Salvador Dali (1904–1989)