July and August are the most pleasant months to fish on the Upper Mississippi. They also are the months I tend not to bring home any fish. I know that it is partly my imagination, but I don’t think the fish taste as good in the middle of the summer. The water is warm and the river relatively stagnant, and the flesh of the fish is soft with a muddy taste to it. All of the fish begin to taste a little bit like catfish. That, however, is my northern lake country bias showing through. I was taught to believe that if I was eating any freshwater fish other than trout, walleye, or perch, I was eating a second-tier fish. Even now, when I panfish with my friend Buzz, we clean fish together – then he takes home all of the bluegill and crappie fillets, and I take home all the perch.
When I first moved to La Crosse twenty-five years ago, I was not even sure whether fish from the Upper Mississippi River were safe to eat. The River Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse does some of the country’s best research on heavy metals in fish, so I asked one of the professors in the program whether he ate fish out of the river.
“I don’t eat the piscivorous fish,” he said. When I asked him what that meant, he said, “I don’t eat fish that eat fish. I eat the small fish. Mostly bluegills, maybe a perch or two. Only rarely will I eat a small walleye or northern, but even then I don’t eat the fatty belly meat.”
Then he asked, “Do you plan on having any more kids?”
I said, “No.”
“Do you have any daughters?”
I said, “I have one daughter.”
“Then,” he said, “eat only panfish and have them no more than once a week. If it was just you, I’d say eat fish every day if you want to. You are male and old and overweight. It isn’t the mercury in fish that is gonna get you.”
Isn’t that reassuring?