Fried Fresh Bluegill

Fried Bluegill with zucchini green salad and sautéed chard

I haven’t posted many “rustic” meals. However, here’s one tied to my fond memories from summers at the lake in my childhood.

When I was young, my dad would fry panfish on the grill. First, of course, we’d have to catch the fish; typically for the lake we visit those would be perch, bluegill, and crappie (the latter two being varieties of sunfish.)  Then he would clean them, stationed on an old wooden bench covered with newspaper; if there happened to be many perch in the catch, he was not happy… apparently they’re harder to clean. Next he would drop them in flour and fry them in cast iron pans on a charcoal grill, so as not to make a mess of the kitchen.  My dad passed away more than half-my-life ago, but I still have these good memories and the cast iron pans as well. :)

I spent these past few days on a splendid holiday vacation at the lake in the northwoods (out of mobile phone coverage) with lots of swimming, canoeing, and just a bit of fishing.  While in recent decades I’ve eschewed fishing, opting instead for even lazier passtimes at the lake, a recent interest in foraging and finding one’s own food, and the idea of preparing a meal one might be able to do solely from what the earth provides directly, helped to change that.

Bluegill, a common variety of freshwater Sunfish

Bluegill are an attractive, colorful variety of panfish, i.e., a fish that typically fits, whole, in a frying pan.  (That’s a bit gruesome… wouldn’t that mean human beings could be called “pine box apes?”)

My companion and I caught four bluegill for this dinner, two for each of us; one was caught by casting an artificial lure and the others simply with cheese dangling on a hook as bait. I’ll admit I caught one and she caught three. :-) (When I was a kid, we usually fished with live bait: worms or night crawlers, but the cheese was conveniently on hand.)  I don’t believe that bluegill have any special affinity for cheese, but they were more interested in it than hot dog. :) Sometimes you can even catch panfish on a bare hook!

I considered cooking the bluegill whole (sans scales and guts, of course), but decided to do it as my dad did, removing the fish’s head and its gills along with it.

Scaling the fish with a knife…Warning to the squeamish: fish guts!


Once cleaned, I simply patted the rinsed fish partially dry, and dipped them in flour, spiced with salt, pepper, fresh thyme leaves, and an adobo seasoning mix (from Penzey’s.)

Bluegill dipped in flour and seasonings

I poured perhaps 1/2 inch of canola oil into a cast iron pan on a medium heat grill.  Once the oil was hot (test with a small piece of batter or food), I placed all four bluegill in the pan and cooked for 3-5 minute per side, until they began to brown and the fish flaked easily from the bone.

Frying bluegill in oil

Once done, place the fish on paper towel to drain excess oil.

Fried Bluegill

I don’t try to fillet panfish… besides, eating them carefully and watching for bones brings a civilized pace to the meal. :)

We ate our bluegill accompanied by a delicious green salad of fresh lettuces with sautéed zucchini, croutons flavored with fresh sage, and a touch of salad dressing; sautéed rainbow chard with garlic scapes; and a nice beer.

A meal of fried bluegill and vegetables

The bluegill were tasty, with a mild flavor and just slightly crisp, thin coating just as I remembered, having last had them prepared this way more than 20 years ago. They went from lake to plate in about an hour. I bet my dad (and mom) would be proud of my preparation from childhood memories. :)

Mmmm, fried bluegill tails!

Last but not least, don’t forget to try the crispy tails! They’ve got a potato chip-like consistency, and you can eat perhaps the last 1/2 end of the tail, just as you might eat the tail of a deep-fried shrimp.

Oh, I am also fresh from the lake in that last photo. :)

9 responses

    • I was just reminiscing, but you’re welcome; I enjoyed checking out some of your youtube videos, like the sight-fishing pumpkinseeds!
      Maybe next time I’ll catch something suitable for fileting. :)

  1. Hen I was a wee lad my grand parents had a cabin on a lake near Oscoda,MI.
    We caught many a bluegill and lots of catfish and bullheads.
    I noticed that you did not scale the bluegills??
    Which species of fish prefer your homemade scotch bonnet cheese as bait?

    • Hi Matthew!

      We have bullheads in the lake, but don’t catch them too often, thankfully. They fight like crazy so they’re fun until you get them close enough to see what they are.

      Oh, ya, the bluegill are definitely scaled; in fact, in the photo with the fish guts, I’m running a knife from tail to head to scale them completely. (I couldn’t find the fish scaling tools that my dad used to use.) They were much more colorful before the scales were removed. :)
      It’s not nice to get the translucent scale(s) on your dinner plate; I found that out when making whole red snapper and missed a few scales.

      Ha ha – no scotch bonnet in the cheese… we used Colby cheese. My older brother reminded me that (other than live bait) canned corn kernels would have been a good option.

      I have heard of putting hot peppers into bird seed though, so that the squirrels won’t eat it but the birds still will.

      • My eyes must be playing tricks on me.
        I didn’t like catching bullheads and catfish because they always swallowed the hook and it was nasty to get out !

        Hot peppers on bird seed to prevent squirrel eatage.
        Doesn’t work.
        I tried mixing cayenne pepper into my birdseed, but all it did was make the squirrels ask for beer and nachos to go with it.

      • I’m surprised squirrels can take the heat.
        The animals are already getting my cheese; I’m certainly not giving them my beer. :)

      • Love your recipe’s man. Stories as well. I’m an avid outdoorsman and love to hunt fish for my food. Minnesota guy over here, land of 10,000 lakes! Ive never seen sunfish prepared with the skin, we always just fillet them (which can get annoying/ tedious). I must say I like the idea of this method mush more.
        Just wondering if you peeled back the skin or was it edible after frying?

        Great stuff here, I’m going to book mark this page.

        Also lol at Matthew M, “just wanted beer and nachos after”.

      • Thanks, Sam!

        We always ate the sunfish with the skin on… just scale them, and there’s not much substance to the skin at all.
        You might like smelts or sardines that I cooked sort of in a similar fashion… also not fileted. ;)

        We recently came back from Barcelona, where, after finishing off a plate of whole fried sardines, I did see a guy at another cafe on the street who had painstakingly removed the skeleton from his sardines!

  2. Pingback: Fried Smelts | Kitchen Convivial

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