"Whitebait" is a collective term for immature fish fry or minnows. Generally between 2 to 5 inches, they are fried and eaten whole - bones, skin, head and guttie-wuts. The cooking renders all this soft and edible and they are a delicacy in Europe. There's even some whitebait festivals out there!
After reading a recipe for fried minnows in Darina Allen's Forgotten Skills of Cooking, I was aching to bust out the seine net and try it myself. The laws concerning the use of a seine net in Michigan are as follows:
Minnows for personal use only may be taken with hook and line, seines, dip nets, and traps with a valid fishing license. In trout streams minnows may only be taken during the open season for trout by hook and line or minnow traps. Seines must not be over 12 feet by 4 feet.
So this means that my home river, the Jordan, is open to seine netting from Graves Crossing to Lake Charlevoix until the last Saturday in April when the waters upstream from Graves, the Type 1 trout stream section, open up.
The Jordan in winter, Michigan's 1st designated Wild and Scenic River
Using a seine net is fairly straightforward but does require practice. It is more difficult in moving water due to the current and a lot of sticks and snags hiding under the river's surface, but there is no open water on the lakes this time of year. It requires two people coordinating together, and in the winter, a good pair of waders.
The team of netters tries to keep the bottom of the net as close to the stream bottom as possible and moves upstream and toward each other at the same time. The trick is trying to flip the net up without losing any minnows and that is gonna take take some trial-and-error. If you are working a river with a gradual bank, or a lake, it is best to sweep toward shore, forcing the fish into shallower and shallower water. Minnow traps are an easier alternative, but I don't have one yet.
Here we have Emerald Shiners (Notropis atherinoides), which are beautiful and colorful when pulled fresh from the river, but quickly fade once killed.
Whole Fried Whitebait
(adapted from the book Bones: Recipes, History & Lore by Jennifer McLagan)
1/2 lb whitebait
1/4 cup barley flour
freshly ground black pepper
2 cups canola oil
Mix flour with salt and pepper, toss in some of the whitebait and then transfer to a sieve and give it a shake to remove excess flour. Place fish on a baking sheet and repeat with the remaining fish.
Heat the oil in a large skillet until very hot. Add only some of the fish at one time. Adding all the fish can cool the temperature of the oil and result in soggy fish. Fry for two minutes or until golden. Drain on paper towels and repeat with remaining fish. Sprinkle on salt and pepper and dribble on a bit of fresh lemon. Enjoy!
"Mmm! Tastes like Smelt!"