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It’s around this time of year when I get the hankering for a serious fish chowder. There are many ways to garner the ingredients for such a dish, and most folks are adamant that their way of making chowder is the only way. I’m not quite that defiant and, in fact, prefer just about anyone else’s chowder recipe if it’s on the table and ready to eat. You can’t beat home cookin’ and when the chowder pot is the size of a Viking’s cauldron, you can be sure that there’s plenty of fixins in it and it’s going to be good!
When I am left to my own devices I have a simple recipe which must begin on a cold, dark night on a cold, dark lake. My preference for fish chowder is freshwater cusk or ling. Ugly no matter what you call them; cusk are as tasty as any saltwater species and much cheaper! Last time I checked haddock was about $5 a pound, and the price of halibut would have required a small loan from the bank. Cusk are free-ranging bottom-dwellers that are most active at night, and for the price of a few pieces of cut bait, hook and line you can catch all you want.
Most of the reason why cusk are so delicious is because they live in our cleanest, deepest, coldest lakes. Rubbing shoulders with lake trout at depths often exceeding 100 feet, you can find a chowder’s-worth of cusk in Sebec Lake, Lake Wassookeag, Schoodic Lake and similar “salmon” waters in this part of the state. If it’s deep, cold and full of trout and salmon it’s also likely to contain cusk. In fact, many weekend ice-fishermen targeting the glamour species (trout, salmon and lake trout) will drop their lines to the bottom and fish all night for cusk – and probably have better luck! Cusk require no angling skills, are easily fooled by a 2-inch chunk of sucker and are likely to be hooked on the first pass. No need to wait for them to nibble the bait, run and wait or any of that other finesse stuff. When the flag goes up there’s likely to be a cusk on the line, well-hooked and none too happy about it. Because cusk are invariably caught on the bottom on deep water, they commonly cough up their swim bladders when they come through the hole, mostly because they came up too fast via the eager angler’s hand-over-hand retrieve. We don’t eat the swim bladder so there’s no loss, but add that to the cusk’s already ugly appearance and you have a catch that has literally made many young anglers run back home to their mothers! Roughly a combination of eel and horned pout, cusk are rarely end up as trophy mounts, but only a fool would toss one back into the water. This is what we came for and, believe it or not, the flesh of a cusk is some of the best-eating fish in Maine.
The first cusk I ever caught weighed nearly 5 pounds, but they get much bigger than that. Maine’s state-record cusk weighed 18 pounds, 8 ounces – what a chowder fish that must have been! Most cusk caught by serious anglers weight much less than half that, but it doesn’t take many to make a chowder.
That first fish was specifically targeted for a chowder pot that had been simmering all day in a make-shift shack we’d erected on Schoodic Lake. The milk, potatoes, cream, pepper, onions and other ingredients were already bubbling when that ugly fish came up through the ice, and we wasted no time whittling him into bite-sized chunks for the pot.
We kept the chowder going while we caught a few more cusk and tossed them in as well, and when the mixture was thick enough to float a spoon we dug in. Let me tell you, I’ve had chowders of all kinds all over the world, but that Schoodic Lake midnight concoction was the best. Of course, any time you are cold, hungry and tired anyone’s chowder will win first prize – I’ve never turned down a second bowl no matter who made it or when!
What’s equally great about cusk is that they are available to fishermen year-round and have no size or bag limit. I don’t hear much about anglers taking them in summer though there’s no reason they can’t, especially those who dead-drift a big shiner or sucker in hopes of catching a giant togue. If a cusk is close by and can fit the bait in his mouth he’ll take it, no doubt. I think most summer lake trout fishermen try to keep their baits drifting a foot or two above the bottom so that they will escape the notice of the less-desirable (to them, anyway) cusk. Actually, if I had the choice between a 20-pound togue and a 20-pound cusk, I’d go with the chowder fish! I’ve eaten lake trout big and small, and my honest assessment is there’s no comparison.
Any trout will win a popularity contest until it’s time to boil up the spuds and onions, then I’ll go with the cusk. Being “old school” I like to eat what I catch or kill, and I tend to limit my killing to the game that tastes best to me. My crock pot rarely has anything other than wild game or fish in it, and once the beans are done I’ll conjure up a feed of rabbit, deer, moose, bear or cusk and feel as if I’ve won a culinary first prize.
It’s still iffy out there as far as ice thickness goes, but it’s not necessary to fish in the middle of the lake where the water is deep and the ice is thin. Pick a secluded bay or cove and set up where the ice is dependably safe and spend a winter evening catching inland Maine’s finest chowder fish. If you drop your first line to the bottom at sunset you should be on your way home by midnight with all the cusk you can eat for a week. The best news is you’ll undoubtedly have the entire lake to yourself!
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