Fishing On Lake Huron

I had an incredible opportunity to go out fishing with two very bright, young chefs pushing the boundaries of what we understand about freshwater fish. On this adventure, I joined chefs Jon and Matt who are helping to provide incredible freshwater fish. I have often noticed that freshwater native fish are not featured in Ontario restaurants, so I was very happy to see how Jon and Matt are pushing hard to show off this incredible product and treat it with the highest possible level of respect. It was inspiring and a great honour to be on the boat with them and the fishermen, to work hard with them, and observe firsthand their dedication to quality and promoting a neglected product.

Our day began at 3am. I waited outside Jon's house and he soon emerged with hand coolers at the ready. We started our journey - a drive of about three and half hours - accompanied by Jon’s business partner, Matt. We made good time and arrived at the dock just before the fishermen. On their arrival, we travelled to the end of the dock and were introduced. The fishermen, wonderful indigenous men, were pleasant, dedicated, and great to work with.

As we proceeded to board the boat at dawn, I was given the rundown of the operation and my role in it. They showed me the entire process: how they catch the fish, use the nets, bring them in, and remove the fish from the nets.

At this point they also demonstrated the process of ikejime. Ikejime is a humane method of killing a fish that maintains the quality of its meat. The technique originated in Japan, but it is now widespread and used globally. Ikejime involves quickly and directly inserting a spike into the hindbrain of the fish, which is right behind and above the eye. This process causes immediate brain death, causing the fish fins to flare. As a result of this action, the fish relaxes immediately, and all motion ceases. The brain and spinal cord of the fish are destroyed which prevents reflex action, like muscle movements, from occurring. Alternative techniques of killing fish result in the production of more lactic acid and ammonia which makes the fish taste sour, soggy, and less appetizing overall. Furthermore, the blood contained in the fish flesh interacts with the gut cavity, which produces a more flavourful fillet with a more attractive colour and a longer shelf-life. This method is considered to be the fastest and most humane method of killing fish. Ikejime GMA fish is sought after by many restaurants and allows the fish to develop more umami when aged.

On the boat, the fishermen demonstrated the process of inserting the small metal rod through the spine which causes the fish to die instantly. Although it can be a little gruesome at first, understanding that the fish’s suffering ended instantaneously, and was not prolonged by suffocation, was incredible and gave me a great appreciation for this technique. In addition to the reduction of the fishes’ suffering, I was pleased knowing that this more humane process allows for the creation of a superior product. The fishermen demonstrated respect and care towards each each and every fish which was amazing to observe. Having been on other commercial fishing boats, I have seen the manner in which fish are commonly treated: squished, pushed, stomped on, and absolutely disrespected. It was an incredible change to see all the beautiful fish being treated with such respect and care right in our homeland.
About an hour into our trip, we arrived at our first net. The net rose up out of the water with the captain calling out each and every fish as it was coming into line: Pickerel, pickerel, bass, pickerel, lake trout, pickerel. The pace of the net rising got quicker, but fish after fish, we processed them quickly: the crew were pros. They were jimmying them in the back of the boat. While I was removing the fish, I was eating. The second hand or the second mate was removing the fish and bringing them to the back of the boat to be processed. Our catch consisted of incredibly sized white fish, a couple of freshwater drum, pickerel, a sole lake trout, and numerous smallmouth bass. We also caught an invasive goby, and one small smelt. I got to experience everything that the fishermen have to deal with: the harsh realities of being out on the water, the ebb and sway of the boat, the nausea and the dampness, the smell of the fish as they come rolling in, and the dangers of being out on cold Lake Huron waters. The swells that day were relatively minimal. However, knowing that a storm was coming in, our day was cut relatively short. We were out on the water for approximately seven hours: a stretch of time that is relatively short compared to what the fishermen usually run.
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