‘Catch & Cook’ takes your fish from lake to table

Talk to virtually anyone who’s returned from a guided, wilderness fishing trip and the conversation invariably leads to one common subject: the shore lunch. Indeed, few culinary treats are much tastier than freshly caught, freshly prepared fish.

Now, a number of participants in Michigan’s travel and tourism industry are making it known that you don’t have to go to Canada to enjoy such a meal.

“Catch & Cook” is being promoted by the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michigan Sea Grant, Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan Charter Boat Association and the Michigan Restaurant Association as a way of introducing the public to the joys of combining a fishing trip with a freshly prepared meal.

It’s not an entirely new concept though. “We’ve done this for eight or nine years now,” said Capt. Denny Grinold, who runs Fish N’ Grin, a salmon-fishing charter boat out of Grand Haven. Grinold regularly sends his customers – with their fresh catches – to Old Boys’ Brewhouse, just across the Grand River from where he docks.

“Our clients go over there, the restaurant staff cooks the fresh fish, and then they serve it family style,” Grinold said. “It’s wonderful.”

Grinold said he and his buddies at Old Boys’ are hardly alone. The Michigan Charter Boat Association (of which Grinold is a former president) surveyed its members and found there were some 50 restaurants across Michigan working with charter boat skippers on catch-and-cook opportunities.

Although it has never been illegal for an angler to take his or her catch to a restaurant and have a meal prepared, some restaurants – and the county health departments that oversee them — have been wary of the practice. Catch & Cook not only informs all involved about the opportunity, it sets the standard for handling fish before they’re prepared for the table.

Captains, for instance, are required to keep the fish on ice and then bag and label the fillets they send over to the restaurant with the customer.

The program, which was publicly announced earlier this month, is paying off already, Grinold said.

“Everybody who fishes knows that fresh fish is the best,” he said. “Even some people who don’t care for fish do it and say, ‘Wow, this is really good.'”

Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said there was no standard practice for how charter boat skippers handled the fish before Catch & Cook came along.

“Our department is responsible for food safety so we worked with local health departments to make sure they were comfortable with the program,” Creagh said. “So far, the local health departments are pleased to be a part of it, the Michigan Charter Boat Association is excited about it and we’re all about food.”

The Catch & Cook program increases the visibility of Michigan food products as well as the recreational fishing industry, Creagh said. “I’ll gladly pair fresh-caught fish with Michigan wine and asparagus and potatoes. And Hudsonville ice cream for dessert.”

Brian DeBano, the president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant Association, said about 30 of his member institutions have signed on to the program and he expects more to join in as the program gains publicity. The program fits in well with the restaurant association’s commitment to the state’s travel and tourism industries, DeBano said.

“If you’re traveling across Michigan, this is a great way to make your trip complete,” DeBano said. “What’s better than fresh fish?”

Dan Paquin, the chef at Old Boys’ Brewhouse, said he uses a number of the recipes the restaurant had on the menu in the past to prepare sport-caught salmon for the customers.

“Salmon is very easy to work with,” Paquin said. “You can put just about anything on it. You can serve it poached, grilled, fried – you can do just about anything you want with it.”

Paquin said that he’s had occasion to serve four or five parties a day during the peak of salmon-fishing season. “Usually we have small groups of four or five people, but we have done some big corporate groups, too,” he said.

Erin McDonough, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs — one of the non-governmental organizations partnering in the program – said her group believes Catch & Cook will be good for conservation, too.

“One of the biggest barriers people who are just entering hunting and fishing face is what to do with the game,” she said. “I think this will help. People will catch fish, eat them, enjoy the experience and then go on to buy licenses and become involved in protecting natural resources.”

Rodney Stokes, director of the Department of Natural Resource, agreed.

“This program is a wonderful opportunity to promote the state’s $3.7 billion fishing industry and boost Michigan jobs and Michigan businesses,” Stokes said. “The Great Lakes are a unique and extraordinary natural resource – Michigan’s defining resource. Providing one more opportunity for people to enjoy the lakes goes to the heart of who we are as a state.”

For a list of charter boats, ports or restaurants participating in Catch & Cook, www.micatchandcook.com