Prairie Table Fare

Eating well on the prairie, a la Lewis and Clark

North Dakota Duck Hunting – A journal of all things in Prairie Pothole Country

Our friend Neal visits our ranch periodically during the year. And oddly, it is during his visits that we most often enjoy a meal of bison. I say odd because he lives in the Twin Cities of Mpls/St. Paul, while we actually live in the midst of the historical bison range.

He brings the bison, ground burger or a roast. It is delicious. He buys it by the quarter through an arrangement at work. It is not cheap eating, but it is as close to a true prairie meal as a roasted gadwall with juneberry sauce.

Bison from the American prairie
Raising bison now is a tenuous task, as you compete with beef herds for pasture and markets and transportation. Plus bison are not nearly as cooperative as a herd of Angus, preferring to go their own way on their own time, thank you very much.   Get into the truck? Get into THAT truck? I think not.

High, sturdy fences help lend at least a sense of confinement, but bison herd management always boils down to making them happy where they are. Or else they will leave, fences be damned. And waving rattle paddles or hotshot sticks at them in the process of departure is tempting the tallgrass fates.

Recently, we had a mixed prairie meal of bison and fish, you could call this the “Lewis and Clark” dining experience. Lewis and Clark passed through our country some 200 years ago, via the Missouri River. It is well-documented that they dined on prairie fare along the way; deer, elk, bison, birds…and fish. Catfish to be exact.

We fished the Missouri the last time Neal and his daughter visited our prairie home. And we caught a boxful of channel catfish. Firm, cold water fish taken below the Garrison Dam on water the Lewis and Clark expedition undoubtedly passed thru 200+ years ago. Catfish were a staple for the expedition. Perhaps, just perhaps, the cats we caught were descendants of those which provided meals to the Corps of Discovery two centuries ago. Makes you think.

Nothing better than coldwaters cats
Not much thinking about preparing the fish. We skinned them and then filleted them out. You end up with a couple of nice meaty, boneless fillets.   Dredge in egg wash and then corn meal with a shot of Old Bay spice. Then dunk into a deep fryer bubbling with hot oil. Absolutely delicious and unlike any catfish you’ve had from our usual warm, turbid rivers.

For all we know the Corp of Discovery roasted their catfish over a fire on a stick run stem to stern through their midsection. Don’t believe they had kettles of hot oil. At any rate, the cats have been honored residents of the Missouri river for eons, and as such are prime prairie fare. We can only imagine they were relished by a crew tasked with pushing and pulling boats upstream across a continent.

So we sat down to fried catfish and seared bison burgers. The platter of golden brown fish was heaping and the burgers were plump and pink in the middle (for the love of all things prairie DO NOT overcook your bison).  While the Lewis and Clark crew ate a bison a day when available, these couple of pounds of ground goodness were more than plenty for our fishing crew of four.

We sat back sated and happy with our day on the water, surrounded by prairie, now home to Black Angus cows. A bit sad. Melon finished the meal.

Next Week: The best duck recipe you have never tried.

The author is a former US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Department of Agriculture manager. In retirement he owns and operates Prairie Smoke Ranch, located in central North Dakota, the duck hunting hub of the northern plains. All rights reserved.

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