Different cultures offer a variety of takes on the signature fried fish dish – from Andalusia’s pescado frito to the Jamaican saltfish fritters known as Stamp and Go – and the classic Ontario shore lunch definitely deserves a place among these tasty culinary traditions.
The star ingredient of any shore lunch is the day’s catch, fresh off the hook. It has been a popular way for Ontarians and visitors to the province to enjoy the bounty of our lakes and rivers for decades. It’s also a culinary tradition that incorporates the do-it-yourself spirit – even if a pro happens to be on hand to fillet and prepare the catch.
Shore lunch novices need not worry; there are plenty of Ontario resorts and lodges that will handle the specifics of the cookout. John Naimian has owned and operated Oak Lake Lodge and Outpost in Thunder Bay since he purchased the property in 1999, and fish fries have always been a part of the guest experience.
“Every day we do a shore lunch,” he says. Guests bring their allotted catch to Naimian’s staff who fillet and fry it to perfection in a signature house batter that includes crushed cornflakes.
The meal is simple but tasty and usually enjoyed with a cold beer. Naimian’s fishing guides do the cooking, separating the fish (typically pickerel) into finger-like shapes and frying it in canola oil after coating each section in batter. “We usually serve it with red beans and a salad. And after that we’ll have cookies. A very simple, but very delicious meal.”
Naimian estimates that around 85% of the guests at his all-inclusive fly-in lodge are repeat visitors, meaning there must be something to this shore lunch tradition. “I would say it’s one of the big attractions for people to come to fish,” he says.
Krista Morgan, the owner and operator of Beachwood Resort on Lower Buckhorn Lake north of Peterborough, agrees the meal has its own gravitational pull on her guests. One family of repeat customers has been bringing multiple generations up from their home in the U.S. for the last 45 summers.
Want to get your own fry on? Fishing resorts like Oak Lake, Beachwood, and Auld Reekie are as close as anglers can get to a sure thing in terms of a triumphant fishing expedition, but Ontario also offers a range of other fishing options. While most fishing in the province requires a licence for anyone between the ages of 18 and 64, certain dates such as Family Fishing Week in July (July 2 to 10 this year) allow Canadian residents to fish for free (though catch limits, size limits and other regulations still apply). Single-day fishing licences are also available for under $25.
While the remoteness of destinations like Oak Lake Lodge or Auld Reekie Lodge on Gowganda Lake in Northeastern Ontario is part of the appeal for many, there are also plenty of spots on the shores of Ontario lakes and rivers that offer prime fishing opportunities that don’t require a boat, from Rice Lake to St. Mary’s River Rapids. The community of Temiskaming Shores on Lake Temiskaming is considered one of the province’s under-the-radar angling gems with huge caches of pickerel as well as smallmouth bass, pike, perch, and catfish.
When it’s time to cook up your catch, all that’s required is a grill and a large skillet or roasting pan that can hold plenty of oil. Batter favourites include beer batter, tempura-style coating, breadcrumbs or classic cornmeal. You’ll know the fish is ready to be fried when the oil shimmers. Traditional side dishes complete the meal. Think: potato or pasta salads, coleslaw, and maple baked beans.
Wherever you decide to partake in the fish fry tradition, follow local rules about fishing and outdoor grilling. Above all, make sure you have enough fish! After a first taste of the fish fry, not many people say no to a second serving.