Clayton: What's your favorite freshwater fish --- for eating?

Luke Clayton
Special to the E-T

I recently posed the question on social media “What’s your favorite freshwater fish to eat that’s commonly caught in Texas waters?” Several hundred folks responded with their favored species for the frying pan or grill and many elaborated with their methods of cooking. In my post, I mentioned I was conducting an unofficial ‘poll’ and the results would be the topic for my outdoor column this week.

Catching fish is only part of the equation; eating freshly caught fish is a highlight to a successful fishing trip to many. Who can resist crunchy fried fresh fish fillets?

The replies went much as I expected with a few unique exception. I know many of the folks and guessed their favorite fish before they posted. Some fish for catfish, some for crappie, some for stripers and others for white bass. A few even mentioned species such as gar and buffalo fish. I knew the veteran fishermen that had spent years catching and cooking freshwater fish of all species. These guys and gals weren’t bias as to one fish. They had fished for, cooked and eaten them all during their fishing career.   

The top two favorites were, as most will guess, crappie and catfish, both good eating fish and widely dispersed throughout the freshwaters of the state. A few mentioned walleye but only the folks up in the Panhandle have walleye available in catchable numbers. I think anyone who has enjoyed walleye fillets have to agree, there is no better tasting freshwater fish. But walleye are not available to every region of the state, thus only a handful of folks mentioned them.

Luke Clayton

So, here’s a rundown of the favorites and some reasons they make this ‘popularity list’!

• CRAPPIE: Crappie are widely dispersed and they are, arguably, one of if not the best tasting fish for many.  From a personal perspective, I enjoy eating crappie but favor several other species more. Why do crappie rate so high on the list? The fillets are snow white, firm textured and, to my way of thinking, have a neutral flavor. They don’t taste like fish which is a reason many non fish eaters enjoy eating them. The flavor of crappie is highly influenced by the seasonings or batter used.

• CATFISH: Ask a veteran Texas fish eater his or her favorite species for the frying pan and many will give their nod to catfish some will be very specific, replying, ‘the belly steaks from flathead catfish’ or ‘cheek meat from big blues’ or small channel cats skinned and fried whole, bone in. Some might even favor bullhead catfish freshly caught and deep fried. Catfish, regardless the species lend themselves well to a dip in Lake Crisco and are often the highlight of big fish fries at large gatherings.

• WHITE BASS: Sandbass rated high on the list of many that responded to the post and for obvious reasons, they are readily available and tasty in everything from fried fillets to fish tacos. Smaller sandbass are more tasty I think because they have less ‘red meat’ but larger sandbass are also tasty if one takes a sharp thin blade fillet knife and removes the red meat that is on the surface of the fillet as well as the red line that runs vertically down the fillet. Much of this red meat can be left on the skin when butchering the fish if the knife is raised a bit above the skin when filleting. Sandbass taste like, well… sandbass and I love the flavor. I often place the fillets in Louisiana Hot sauce and buttermilk for thirty minutes or so before dusting them with a mixture of two-thirds cornmeal and one-third flour.

• STRIPER: Stripers are served in restaurants in northern states all along the Atlantic and for good reason, they have an excellent flavor and lend themselves to several cooking methods. Like white bass, they also have the ‘red meat’ strip running down the center of the fillet which is easily removed. Chris Carey with Striper Express on Lake Texoma, has perfected a method of removing this red meat from the fillet quickly without the use of a fillet knife.

Striper fillets can be cut into ‘fingers’ and fried just like crappie or catfish and the flavor is excellent. I absolutely love to blacken or bake striper fillets and almost always fire up the propane burner and heat a cast iron skillet upon returning from a striper fishing trip. Using the blackening method, I can be dining on fresh striper in a matter of ten minutes!  Striper fillets can be boiled in shrimp and crab boil and chilled in ice for a meal of ‘Texoma shrimp’. To be honest, I prefer this dish to shrimp! One of my favorite methods of cooking striper is to bake them with butter, basil, garlic powder, salt and black pepper. A squeeze of lemon juice just before eating adds the finishing touch!

• HYBRID STRIPER: This genetic cross between the striped bass and white bass lends itself well to many ways of cooking, just like its parent the striped bass. Truthfully, I can’t tell any difference in the flavor but absolutely love to grill or broil well seasoned, hybrid striper fillets. The flavorful flaky fillets from larger hybrids makes awesome fish tacos.

• PANFISH: Bream and all sorts of sunfish were favored by many responders to my post. It’s hard to beat crunching down on a tasty bream that is scaled and fried whole to a crispy brown in hot cooking oil.

After reading through all the comments on my social media post, I noted that several had inquired as to MY favorite eating fish. I found this difficult to answer because I enjoy catching, cooking and eating just about everything that swims in fresh water. I love eating yellow bass (bar fish) and enjoy fishing for them in the winter months but then every other species mentioned has graced my grill and Dutch Kettle through the years.  Few have eaten gar but the meat is snow white and very tasty but it must be served and eaten while fresh and right out of the cooking oil.

Buffalo fish are also great eating albeit bony. I’ve made baked fish cakes out of the snow white fillets from larger buffalo. I didn’t mention largemouth bass but I grew up eating them and still do when I’m fishing a farm pond that needs a bit of ‘thinning’! As far as eating carp goes…. Well you’ll have to prove to me it’s edible!!

Email outdoors writer Luke Clayton via his website