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In a pinch, rock bass rock the party

Rock bass are often cursed while anglers attempt to land other species upon Minnesota lakes. However, the species is wonderful table fare and ranks alongside other freshwater species, though dinner guests may dispute your honesty when telling them the true origin of their meal. (Jason Durham / For the Enterprise)

It's a weekly affair, as a fishing guide, that someone in the boat is looking forward to a fish dinner.

You might not find that as common as thought, since many of the occupants strive towards catch-and-release or a minimal amount of kept fish, often those that are hooked deeply and cannot swim away.

The only option beyond surrendering the fish to the turtles is to keep it.

Yet this past week, as I, the one who keeps fewer fish than most yet strives to entertain family in a twice annual fish fry, pulled the "scales" over the eater's eyes.

"'What kind of fish are these?'" a dinner guest inquired.

"All walleye," I divulged, though I may not have told the entire truth.

Yes, a single, small, deeply hooked walleye that was unable to swim away from the boat under its own power was cast into the livewell of my boat, offering an addition to dinner.

Yet the majority of the fish kept for dinner that night were somewhat less in fish stature than the highly desired walleye.

A small bass, a few bluegills, a northern pike and 10 or so rock bass accompanied each other in the five-gallon bucket leaning towards the legs of my fish cleaning table.

Each fillet was cut into cubes, to hide any specific identification.

The fluffy dry coating along with a sizzling skillet of hot oil performed effectively, each square emerging in a crispy brown appearance.

A couple potatoes sliced paper-thin and dusted with salt and pepper turned into the "chips" to accompany the fish.

Everyone raved, nobody choked or gagged, it was as if all fish were created equal in the floury fish coating.

"Those walleye were spectacular," someone raved. "Where'd you catch them?"

"They were mostly rock bass," I revealed, "and they were from Fish Hook Lake."

There were no gasps, no guffaws, just half smiles that spit out the words, "yeah, right."

Rock bass undoubtedly get a bad rap, possibly from their over-active eating habits and helicopter-like fighting action.

Some anglers state that the fish species become "wormy" and the fillets are useless.

Yet early season rock bass have few if any of the aforementioned "worms," which are typically only superficial and effect bluegill, pumpinkseed, bass, northern pike, perch and sometimes even a walleye in addition to rock bass.

Maybe anglers have discounted the table possibilities of rock bass since they are so commonly confused with other fish. Their bodies are somewhat similar to a sunfish, the red or orange hued eyes are often mistaken with smallmouth bass and I couldn't tell you how many times anglers at the tackle shop or boat access comment on all the beautiful crappies they caught that day. "Funny thing though," they say, "every one of them had red eyes."

Hence the humored name, "the 'ol red-eyed crappie" each time one is hoisted aboard my boat.

Yet after rave reviews for the recent fish dinner, I still stand by the rock-bass' lesser known name...walleye!