Most days, whether it’s the dead of winter or the longest day of the year, boats head out onto Lake Superior from the Bodin Fisheries dock in Bayfield, Wis.
They’re distinctive old boats, like none others you’ll see away from the Big Lake. They’re flat and ride low in the water like a tug, closed up tight as a clam, with only a few portholes and loose-fitting panels along the water line that are wide open when the fish cleaning begins.
The crew tosses gill nets out the back of the boat and later returns to haul them up, filled with hundreds of pounds of lake trout and whitefish. Then the boat becomes a dark, moveable factory, with the fish cleaned and guts thrown out the windows as it returns to port, trailed by gulls.
It’s tough, cold, dangerous work. Thankfully, there are commercial fishermen around Bayfield, many of them Ojibwe, who are willing to do it, and with Bodin’s to process and truck the fish, there’s mighty good eating in restaurants up to 100 miles away. The Tavern, in the Archer House hotel in Northfield, is as close to Rochester as it gets, but if you’re headed north for a weekend in the winter woods, just about every bar and grill along the south shore — from the sailor bars in Superior to the Bad River casino just east of Ashland — has fresh whitefish.
Here are a few sure bets:
Deep Water Grille, Ashland: Ashland was a boom town for the lumber and brownstone business in the late 19th century, and the Deep Water Grille captures some of that faded glory in a landmark building that’s also home to the South Shore Brewery, which was making good craft beer earlier than just about anyone else in Wisconsin.
The restaurant has a high tin ceiling, spindly cast-iron columns, a captain’s wheel and other marine gear and an abundance of atmosphere. We were there on a Saturday night when a marathon on Chequamegon Bay (for skiers and snowshoers) was in full force, and people were in the mood to warm up and party. They had come to the right place, especially for whitefish and Nut Brown Ale. Order the fish broiled, on a pile of wild rice pilaf ($18.99), and you’ll think it came straight from a Lake Superior day boat.
Morty’s Pub, Bayfield: Morty’s is a more traditional Wisconsin bar and grill, with dart boards, a Big Buck game, a fake fireplace and an Art Deco backbar. Its whitefish basket ($9.75) has two or three good-sized fillets, hot and flaky in a light batter, with kettle chips and tangy coleslaw. The whitefish sandwich is $7.75, and it also has whitefish strips ($6.50) — much better than frozen chicken strips and more lightly breaded — and whitefish tacos ($7.75).
Good Thyme Restaurant, Washburn: This one, you have to plan ahead for. It’s about a mile north of Washburn in a grand Craftsman-style farmhouse, and it’s only open Thursday to Saturday during the winter. But there’s a crackling fire burning when you arrive, an elegant farm-to-table menu and a craft-oriented bar to match.
The menu changes frequently, but you can count on a lake trout entree, such as the current one, the fish broiled and served with red coconut curry sauce, rice and steamed vegetables ($23). The whitefish often gets a more aggressive treatment, such as the current dish with shrimp Veracruz ($25), with olives, capers, tomatoes and pasta.
As Jeff Bodin, who helps run his family’s fourth-generation fishery in Bayfield, says, “Lake Superior has the best whitefish. It has the coldest water and cleanest water. It’s a light fish, not a heavy-tasting fish. It fries easily, bakes easily, smokes well …”
And you can’t beat the Superior scenery, either.