My good friend Karl Malcolm knows how to inflict pain to make a permanent point.
Seconds after I tasted fried perch eggs for the first time Jan. 25 and rendered my verdict, “Tastes like a donut hole,” Malcolm laughed triumphantly and replied:
“Just think of all the pounds of tasty biomass you’ve thrown away in your lifetime of fishing!”
He’s a spiteful kid, that Malcolm. In one sentence, he made me feel old, guilty and wasteful.
Our group had caught 15 jumbo perch just before dark on a northern New Mexico reservoir. About an hour later we gathered for dinner, and devoured all 30 fillets as fast as Malcolm fried them.
About half of those yellow perch were plump females, and Malcolm laid their pinkish-yellow egg sacs atop a paper towel beside his deep-fryer. Sensing I was still hungry, he asked if I’d ever eaten “perch skeins” before.
Somehow, his question felt like a dare, maybe because I didn’t want to look like a fussy wuss who plays with his food. Malcolm was already rolling the egg skeins in breading left over from the perch fillets.
I came clean, conceding I’d never before eaten perch eggs, but that I’d try them now if he cooked them. As Malcolm dropped the breaded skeins into the 350-degree peanut oil, I recalled my ancient past as a teenager in the early1970s.
I had spent many winter nights filleting and skinning perch from lakes Mendota and Monona in Madison, and then filling quart-size milk cartons with perch skeins for my maternal grandfather. Mom said Grandpa Frank stirred the roe into scrambled eggs and ate them for breakfast.
I also recalled my father dismissing that option with disgust: “Germans. They’ll eat anything!” Funny how Dad seldom acknowledged his bloodline was equally German and Irish. I now assume he had never tasted perch skeins, given how he recoiled when seeing them in our refrigerator, awaiting delivery 10 miles west to my grandparents in Cross Plains.
Not wanting to perpetuate Dad’s prejudices toward fish eggs and German eating habits, I bit off a mouthful of deep-fried skein once Malcolm declared them safely cooled.
That bite killed nearly a half-century of untested ethnic and familial norms. I tasted nothing fishy or gritty, and finished the other half with my next bite. If anything, the skeins’ size, shape and texture seemed a combination of donut hole and tater tot, and they go well with tartar sauce and lemon juice.
And so my guilt hardened. If they had tasted as bad as Dad claimed all those decades ago, I would have finished the one skein, washed my hands, and welcomed Malcolm to eat the rest. Instead, I helped eat the remaining five or six and soon felt full. As I savored these post-meal hors d’oeuvres, Malcolm’s challenge kept tweaking my conscience.
How many pounds of good, tasty, nourishing perch eggs had I pitched since cleaning my first perch and bluegills 56 years ago at age 8? And when I included the wasted skeins of crappies, walleyes, bluegills, sunfish and possibly northern pike, I felt like a wanton wretch.
But Malcolm wasn’t done with me yet. Our group fished again the next day, and Malcolm and I brought home 36 perch between us. When we finished skinning and filleting them, his kitchen scale put our combined haul at 5.723 pounds of fillets and 1.695 pounds of skeins from about 20 female perch.
In other words, our combined perch biomass was 7.42 pounds, of which 77% was meat and 23% roe. That meant for every 3 pounds of fish I caught and consumed in winter and spring during a lifetime of fishing, I often threw away another pound of quality food. Should I call a game warden and turn myself in?
No, instead I brought home my share of the fillets and skeins, and asked my wife, Penny, to cook some the next night. Maybe Malcolm’s special breading made them taste especially good. Penny coated some skeins with the same breading she used for the fillets, and cooked them side by side the next two days; one meal deep-fried and one meal pan-fried.
When we ate them, my guilt only worsened. I’d now eaten four meals of perch skeins, and enjoyed each equally.
A week later we came home from a long day on Chequamegon Bay with only four perch, but stretched them into a meal for two by including their four skeins. Once again the skeins were tasty and filling. That’s five meals, and five 5-star ratings.
For those seeking my perch-skein recipes, don’t out-think yourselves. Just bread and fry them with your fillets, taking care not to overcook them. Preferably, they’ll be moist inside, not dry, when you bite in.
I realize, of course, that you’ll find contrary opinions and alternative facts on fishing forums and other online sites. I found one such critic who described perch roe as less appealing than a kick in the crotch, and “so foul they’re painful to eat.”
I assume he was going for laughs, and has as much experience cooking and eating perch skeins as my father.
No, perch eggs don’t taste as great as perch fillets, and they don’t rival walleye cheeks as appetizers, but they deserve to be enjoyed, not discarded.
And before mid-June arrives, I hope to reach the same conclusion after eating the eggs from pike, crappies, walleyes, bluegills and random sunfish.
1) Adult female yellow perch produce plump egg skeins. Skeins, or roe, should be enjoyed, not discarded. 2) When deep-frying or pan-frying skeins, don’t overcook them. They should be moist inside, not dry. These skeins came from perch caught in northern New Mexico.