The Reel Star of the Minnesota Show Is the Walleye

Posted September 3, 2008 at 6:52pm

There has been an unexpected star in the Twin Cities this week, and it’s not the surprise vice presidential pick.

The Minnesota walleye, the celebrated state fish, has reeled in the kind of attention a drowning politician could only dream of.

“Oh, people go wild for it,” walleye enthusiast and Minnesota native Christine Szczech said. “It’s fun to fish for and delicious to eat.”

The mighty walleye, which typically weighs in at two to three pounds, is lauded by local residents, restaurateurs and even elected officials. The Governor’s Fishing Opener, featuring the state’s top boss and top fish, kicks off the season every year over Mother’s Day, much to the excitement of local anglers.

“A lot of guys say, ‘Oh, should I go fishing or should I celebrate Mother’s Day?’” said Rick Kimmes, executive chef at the Oceanaire Seafood Room in Minneapolis. “It’s a pretty big deal here. A lot probably go fishing.”

Kimmes served up a shoreline breakfast Wednesday morning to nearly 100 locals and political types who participated in Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s “More to Tri” fitness challenge. The early risers who swam a quarter-mile in Lake Calhoun were treated to a hearty breakfast of fresh walleye “from the lake to a plate.” Locals loved it, and delegates devoured it, Kimmes said.

Nearly 2.3 million fishermen take to Minnesota’s more than 10,000 lakes every year, according to the Minnesota governor’s office. Szczech, who grew up in St. Paul, fishes walleye professionally on the FLW Walleye Tour, and her enthusiasm for the fish is as strong as her accent. She is most excited for the fall season, when the cold-water-loving walleye begin surfacing and the dams throughout Minnesota become hot spots.

Armed with crankbaits and fishing rods, Szczech will begin heading out next week for the autumn season.

“Full moons in the fall is just a great time to fish,” she said, noting that she’ll be out on her boat well into the cold-weather season. “We don’t care about the ice. Now a bass fisherman, they probably would.”

Szczech, who ribbed bass fishermen as the highfalutin “country club crowd,” is equally opinionated on how to prepare fish: pan-fried in bread crumbs or tempura style. Kimmes prefers a Ritz cracker breading before frying his fish in a skillet, and at Oceanaire, he serves up hearty plates of walleye stuffed with crab and brie. Both Minnesotans hailed walleye as a versatile and mild fish — not unlike Midwesterners themselves — and easily enjoyed even by timid fish eaters.

“If someone says, ‘I hate fish,’ I always say, ‘Oh, you’ll like walleye,’” Szczech said. “It’s not oily, it doesn’t have a fishy smell. People always go for walleye.”

Because Oceanaire is located a few blocks from the Minneapolis Convention Center, the restaurant attracts a crowd of hungry business travelers with an appetite for local cuisine. In fact, Kimmes initially kept walleye off Oceanaire’s menu and added it only after scores of out-of-town diners requested the fish.

“I thought, ‘This is the best seafood restaurant in Minneapolis. We can do better than that,’” said Kimmes, who grew up fishing walleye. “But a businessman from Dallas came in and said, ‘I didn’t travel all the way from Texas to eat another fish. Give me the walleye.’”

Walleye has been a staple on the menu ever since.

This week, Kimmes has been showing off the mounted walleye that hangs above one of Oceanaire’s best tables. He said visiting delegates have asked about the fish, which will return to the dinner menu next week after a short break during the summer months.

“I always joke that everyone has a freezer full of walleye in Minnesota,” he said. “Here, walleye fishing is just what people do.”