Wild Game Recipes: Smoked Panfish (Bluegill, Sunfish, Brim)
Most of my wild game recipes have something to do with the grill. I’m big on flames and wood smoke when it comes to cooking. If you haven’t tried smoking some of the fish you’re catching, then you have new culinary territory to explore. How about smoked panfish?
Combine a rod, reel, line, hook and red worms with your favorite fishing spot, and get yourself a mess of fish. Clean the fish as you normally would (remove head, fins and tail), but leave the skin and scales in place. Remove the upper and lower fins right down to the spinal column. Also, be sure to slit the skin on the top and bottom of the fish so the skin and scales on each side of the fish aren’t connected.
What you’ll need:
- clean charcoal grill with a top and standard wire grilling surface
- wood chips (mesquite or hickory)
- paper towel
- cooking oil
- cleaned, rinsed and patted dry panfish
The Process of Smoking the Fish
While you get your grill up and running (with the grilling surface removed), soak a handful of wood chips in water. After the fire is hot, place the wire grilling surface over the fire to get that hot. Use a little oil on a paper towel to (quickly and carefully) wipe the grilling surface. This makes certain it’s clean and provides better assurance of a stick-free operation.
Drain excess water off of the wood chips and carefully move the grilling surface out of the way so you can spread the chips over the top of the coals. After you’ve spread the wood chips, replace the grilling surface and put a single layer of panfish on for cooking/smoking. Center the fish over the coals, allowing enough room to turn the fish with a flat blade BBQ spatula/turner/flipper.
Cook the fish using a low heat. Allow enough air inside the bottom of the grill to keep the fire going, but close down the top vents to keep the hot smoke in there to do its job. Slow and low is the way to allow the smoke to permeate the meat and make the wood chips last longer. Turn the fish if the skin/scales start to brown up from the heat, otherwise, leave them cook on one side for about 45 minutes before turning them over for another 45 minutes on the other side.
Check periodically to see if the fish are cooked sufficiently. Heat of the coals, length of time on the grill, and distance from the coals will all play a role in determining how long the fish can and should stay on the grill. Don’t be too concerned if some of the skin blackens as the scales and skin help protect the flesh from burning.
If your fire goes out or is too low, but you know you’ve done a good job of smoking the fish, you can finish cooking on a cookie sheet in the oven.
If you’ve done this right, you should have tender and moist fish with the consistency of fried fish but with a nice smoked flavor. The sides of the fish should easily fall away from the main skeletal structure with just a little effort, leaving you to pick out only the rib bones and a few stray bones from the fins that may still be in place. The meat should slide off of the skin and scales quite easily.
The online marketplace offers hickory chips and mesquite chips and large kettle style grills for those who are looking to try this recipe or something similar. My experience shows that a large kettle grill seals well and that provides good results when grilling and smoking fish, and it’s ideal for smoking larger items like a turkey. I own this smoker/grill combination and use it with the optional electric heating element and smoker chip box available from the manufacturer. Or, simply get yourself an electric grill combo so you’re ready to go from the start. These type of small smokers hold a lot and are a nice way to smoke food without the hassle of charcoal and ash, or the danger of open flames.
Clair Schwan isn’t much of a cook in the kitchen, but he can sure fix things up nicely on the grill, especially if there is smoke involved. He believes that knowing how to catch fish and cook basic meals is a key part of self reliance.