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Big Fish, Daddy Rabbit

Into every life must wriggle a few fish tales. Some of them involve brothers, swimsuits and good eats.

By Barbara Rodriguez

Fishing was central to my early life because for 18 years, every family vacation began with my dad sitting down to diagram the interior of the family station wagon. There were neat little graphics for the tents, ice chests, my mother, each of the five children and — most important — Dad’s tackle box.

The tackle box was iconic; it exploded with foldout trays that contained all the mysteries of Dad’s success as an angler.

To children covered in mud and blood and guts, Dad’s box was irresistible, even though he’d know in an instant if something were missing. My brother and I were always spiriting away — and battling fiercely over — the yellow sonic. But as fascinated I was by lures, I was even more fascinated by the military-issue first-aid kit that ominously included a miniature saw and what my brother convinced me was a strychnine tablet. When he tired of my stealing his needle-nose pliers and losing his spoons, Dad bought me my own tackle box, a happy memory second only to the time he surprised me with a bright red Olivetti typewriter.

Those years of fishing at Possum Kingdom, Lake Ray Hubbard, Caddo, Lone Star and Whitney are so much a part of my psyche that I sometimes dream of expanses of glowing green water and, wobbling just below the surface, a red and white plastic bobber. Is it snagged or is there something on the line? This one I haven’t taken to a therapist.

Here then, are a few of my favorite fish stories. Are they true? They’re true to my memories at least, but don’t ask my brother. I can swear that all the recipes stand the test of time.

The Gar

Soon after my older siblings peeled off into marriage and mayhem, we discarded the heavy canvas tents and Dad bought an Airstream trailer. The Colonel kept it on full alert, stocked with gear and always at-ready to bolt out of town. Lake Whitney was little more than an hour away. Jim and I loved it for the water-churning carp and the way little peninsulas appeared and disappeared, depending on the rains.

I was almost at the age where it bothered me that my brother was a boy. I wanted to be alone. I found a spit of pebbly beach where I began launching spinners and set out a bobbered line. We were big on experimental bait. If we could catch it, we’d put it on a hook — grasshoppers, moths, frogs and anything mixed with stink bait — but above all, I preferred live minnows.

Standing on a narrow bank, well away from the family, I skewered a minnow and cast out really pretty. The line had barely finished hssssssing when I got the strike. The pole jerked out of my hand and I grabbed for it in a panic. This is funny because when I hauled in the monster gar, I sailed my entire rig into the water with a scream Jim says he can still hear. Everyone went weak-kneed with laughter but me. I was just weak-kneed. To quell my fear, Dad insisted we examine the gar. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the scales were. I took a handful of the opalescent diamonds to school — my teacher tried to tell me they were arrowheads.

The weekend I caught the gar at Whitney, Mom decided we should begin cleaning fish. She kept the bass, but Jim and I worked on a stringer full of crappie. That night we helped cook, barely able to heft the oiled black skillet onto the fire grate. Jim has been perfecting his frying technique ever since. I think his first black iron skillet was to him what my Olivetti was to me. Today, he’s famed for his fried “fish bites,” the trick to which is filleting and dicing the fish before battering and frying.

Sweet Adolescence and the Alligator

I didn’t want to fish much the summer we went to Lone Star Lake. I wanted to be on the swimming beach where there was a pontoon float and diving platform and boys. The first time I swam out and pulled up onto the pontoon, I heard a boy say, “Lord, Dwayne, look what’s come up over there.” I felt like Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Never mind that I was in the 8th grade and that my bathing suit that year was a one-piece turtleneck so prim that Sister Martinella wanted to know where I’d bought it. I was such a geek I thought it was cool that a nun coveted my swimsuit!

Early one morning when we peeled off from the boys, Mom and I caught a tiny alligator on chicken guts. The little thing was as shocked as we were. It was harmless, but its appearance made the 5-foot-tall cattails all around us seem full of possibilities. I can’t remember how it escaped, but my brother never got to see it. To this day he doesn’t believe there was a ’gator. But I had hauled the little dragon in, tail flailing, eyes flashing.

It was the summer of miracles. Dad fell into the lake. I decided I was beautiful. And Mom showed us how you could cook fish in lemon juice.

Big Daddy Rabbit

Once upon a time I lived on a Blanco cattle ranch that lacked all creature comforts, including heat, and spent my days writing, fishing and cooking with my unemployed artist love. The ranch rambled for 6,000 acres and featured a lake and several ponds, each churning with lunker bass that any idiot could catch — with your hands if you had to.

My parents, who didn’t approve of my relationship but adored the ranch, would visit, but they’d bring their trailer and park alongside the house. That way they didn’t endorse my living in sin and could head out to fish whenever they pleased. Not long before my mom caught “The Big One,” my dad told Michael that he should go back to England and live on the dole.

Oblivious to the macho tension in the air, Mom hooked a 5-pound bass that made her giddy. By the time she got it close to shore, she was up to her knees in the pond, her prairie skirt taking in water like a tea bag. Prone to coining an expression for every occasion, she was shrieking with glee: “I’ve caught the Daddy Rabbit!” over and over, increasingly hysterical. Soon, cowhands came running to check out the commotion. I believe they thought she was wrestling a rabbit in the water. It wasn’t the first time we confused them — they’d seen us stuff a catfish with vegetables, Veracruzano style.

That day we stuffed Mom’s Daddy Rabbit bass and ate it a la huachinango, but not before we took his picture. Michael eventually painted the fish’s portrait and gave it to Mom and Dad. That painting sat on an easel at my mom’s funeral and gave me peace; I could hear still hear her giggling.

Recipes

These recipes are tried and true yet take readily to tinkering, especially where the heat of chilies is involved. Any fish you catch in Texas lakes or in the Gulf will work in these recipes, with the exception of catfish in the ceviche (and that is just my personal taste). Most folks prefer to work with fillets, but I almost always cook the whole fish. And as with shark and salmon, you can stuff and bake a well-rinsed catfish with its skin on, saving a lot of time and frustration with pliers. The trick to successful frying is a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet and oil heated to at least 375 degrees. If you’re going to broil fish, leave the scales on (medium to large fish are best) and peel off the skin, scales and all, before serving.

Veracruzano style
You can, of course, fillet your fish, but we usually cook them head and all, stuffed to the gills — and fight over who gets the cheeks.
  • 6 fillets (snapper, bass, perch, crappie, catfish)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • juice of 3-4 limes
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 large white onion, in rings
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 3 pimientos seeded and cut in long strips
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 6 tomatoes toasted, peeled, seeded and ground
  • 4 cups fish or chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup green olives, pitted
  • 6 pickled (or 3 fresh) jalapenos or other chilies (to taste)
  • avocado slices for garnish
Put stock in a small saucepan and heat just to simmering, then turn off heat. Wash the fillets, pat dry, salt and pepper. Squirt with lime juice and let stand for 10 minutes. Brush with olive oil. Dredge in flour and fry on both sides in hot oil until lightly browned. In the same oil, fry the garlic until it browns, then remove and fry the onion and pimientos, bay leaves and thyme. Add tomatoes and stir until the mixture is well blended, add the warm stock and bring to boil. Add the olives, fillets and chilies and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve in bowls, garnished with avocado and accompanied with tortillas.
Pescado Mexicana
This is my version of a recipe used in Mexico for preparing red snapper or huachinango, but it’s equally tasty for bass, crappie and even a large catfish.
  • 1 pound of fish fillets (preferably red snapper, bass, crappie)
  • 1 large sweet onion, diced
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 6-8 large onion rings
  • 1 large handful cilantro, minced
  • 1-2 chilies (jalapeno or serrano or both), chopped fine
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter or good quality olive oil
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • corn oil for frying
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a baking dish. Arrange onion rings in bottom of dish. Rinse fillets quickly in cold water. Pat dry. Season with salt and pepper. Brush with butter and dredge in flour. Heat corn oil in a heavy fry pan, preferably a black iron skillet. Brown fish slightly in hot oil, then remove to oiled baking dish. Lower heat and briefly sauté vegetables in hot pan, then spoon them atop fillets. Salt and pepper to taste. Cover dish with foil or lid and bake at 350 degrees for 25-35 minutes, basting the fish several times with liquid in dish or a little dry white wine. When the fish is opaque (it should flake with a fork), remove to a serving dish and douse with pan drippings to serve. This is especially good on yellow or Spanish rice.
Ceviche
This is oh-so-tasty with Gulf snapper, but try it with bass or crappie — or a mixture of your favorite firm-fleshed fish.
  • 1 pound fresh fish fillets, cut in bite-sized pieces
  • 1-2 cups fresh lime or lemon juice
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 purple onion, finely chopped (reserve some rings for garnish)
  • 2 serrano chilies finely chopped (more or less, to taste)
  • 1 cup good quality olive oil
  • 10 sprigs of cilantro, minced (reserve some for garnish)
  • 2-3 medium, ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 avocado, cut in strips
Wash and skin fish fillets and dice into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes. Remove fish to a glass or porcelain bowl. Completely cover fish with lime or lemon juice, cover and refrigerate four hours or overnight, until fish is evenly opaque and very white. Stir occasionally with wooden spoon. Be sure fish remains covered in juice; top up as needed. Add chopped onions, chilies and oil to fish, stir and chill. Meanwhile, seed and chop tomatoes, toss with cilantro and stir into fish. Season to taste. Garnish with onion rings, cilantro leaves and avocado. Serve with chips or tortillas.

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