Hook to Table

Explore the camaraderie behind the fryer and reel in the ultimate step-by-step method for the perfect Mobile Bay fish fry.

Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

A whoosh of propane and heat elicits a few hollers and even more cheers as a deep fryer comes to life. Several men unload boxes of fry seasoning off a truck bed. A duo travels to the area where the opposite fryer is being filled with oil, a cooler of fish balanced between them. “Beers are here, guys!” yells a man to the group unloading the fish onto tables. “Where do you want a cold one?” “In my hand,” one of the bunch deadpans, to chuckles from the others.

Oil, seasonings, fish and beer. So begins a typical Mobile Bay fish fry. It’s a coastal Alabama staple as the warm weather arrives, part feast, part social event and always sure to be a good time. “A few years back, this group of guys realized we weren’t socializing enough,” says David Steele. “So, we started doing things together.” For these Mobile Bay men, who now compose the Dad’s Club at St. Ignatius Catholic Church, it was only a matter of time until something seafood-related made an appearance on the social calendar. And, naturally, it attracted several fishing enthusiasts. “I do a lot of frying,” says Chad Summers as he expertly cuts filets in a quick one-two-done fashion. “And I’m fishing easily 250-300 days out of the year.” The 3 a.m. wakeup time for each fishing expedition — “I live further away from the water than I’d like so getting up that early is essential,” he says of his Chunchula address — and the prep work involved the night before is all made worth it when he launches his bay boat into the water. Though he fishes anywhere from the coast of Louisiana to the Florida panhandle, the waters nearer to home are his prime spot. “I really like fishing the Mississippi sound, the Causeway area and the upper Delta,” he says. “I used to live in Coden and the front yard was the Gulf of Mexico.” Fishing for pompano from the middle March and during all of April is a high point for him. “If I’m fishing for anything except pompano, I love fishing the five-month stretch of July, August, September, October and November,” he says. He also loves sharing his passion with his son. “My son tournament fishes with me as well, so we have fun. We weigh in and cook what we keep.” When he catches whiting or ground mullet, his favorite specimens to fry, everyone knows their plates will be full with golden-brown filets in no time.

Left to right Imparting important fry knowledge is just as key as telling tales of the fish that got away. Crispy, golden-brown fish is just about ready to come out of the fryer.

Fresh fish is admittedly a big perk of living in the area and it’s unsurprising that a portion of the club are avid fishermen. Several of the dads enjoy similar experiences fishing and frying with their children, continuing a tradition that they had with their own fathers. “I grew up in Mobile and fishing in Washington County in Sunflower, Alabama,” says Gaines Johnston. “We catch a lot of catfish, filet it and fry it. My dad has always done that as far back as I can remember.” He pulls up a photo on his phone. The screen shows a picture of a tiny boy holding a fishing rod, with a miniscule fish dangling from the end. “That’s me. And that fish is terrible to filet,” he laughs. “They were little! Tiny!”

- Sponsors -

Luckily, those with the know-how on fishing and frying are eager to share it among their friends, family, neighbors, school community, anywhere they can spread their knowledge. Tonight, they are cooking for all of the above, ready to serve fish and sides to the sizeable crowd. This fish-fry fraternity of sorts is varied in membership, comprised of lifelong Mobilians alongside former out-of-towners, cooking gurus paired with fishermen, expert and amateurs alike. The more experienced fryers relish the opportunity to fill in newcomers and those less experienced on their go-to methods and recipes. “I got into frying fish with this group,” says Paul Beckmann. “And we’ve kind of perfected it. At least, we think we have,” he laughs. “I learned from others here who have fried fish before,” Matt Quinn adds. “It’s good brotherhood for the guys that are out here cooking. We get together and our families come later on and get to be together, too.” No matter their experience, everyone has a job to set a successful fry in motion. Several men are stationed around tables assembly-style. A few guys filet the catfish, others dip them in batter and seasoning and a third cohort transfers the filets to the fryer to be cooked. “There’s nothing like fresh fried seafood,” remarks Todd LaCour, monitoring the next batch in the fryer. “And you can get everyone involved: your spouse, your friend, your kid. You catch it that day, filet it and it’s in your belly that night. It’s kind of a family affair.”

Top left to right Chad Summers’ son triumphantly holds his catch. Gaines Johnston’s son patiently waits for a bite at the lake in Washington County. Chad Summers is an expert fisherman, as evidenced by a plethora of catches. Bottom Gaines Johnston proudly displays one of many catches. Professional boat photos by Matthew Coughlin

The air quickly fills with the smell of fried seafood as fryer operators turn out baskets of fried catfish onto sheet pans set with paper towels. It’s enough to get stomachs growling. “I’m ready to eat! What’s taking y’all so long?” shouts a man, beer in hand. “We’ve got sushi for you right here!” replies another, motioning to the pile of uncooked filets. Laughter ensues once again. Finally, the food is ready, and plates are piled high with golden-brown filets and a variety of sides. “It’s good to get everyone together,” says Beckmann. “People always look forward to a fish fry.”

The Perfect Fish Fry 

Step by Step…

Chad Summers, fisherman and fish-fry expert in residence, has his process down pat. MB caught up with him for step-by-step instructions to execute a perfect fish fry.

First, Summers fills a deep fryer with oil. Canola oil is the most common, accessible and economical option. The amount of oil depends on the fryer and crowd. “We use the frying oil that we get at Sam’s,” he says. He connects a propane tank to a deep fryer and allows it to come to temperature. “With these fryers we have here, it takes 15 to 30 minutes to heat up,” he says. “It depends on the outside temperature. They need to be sitting at 350-370 degrees. Anything higher than that, you’ll burn the oil.”

While the fryer is heating up, Summers begins to filet the fish. He likes to fry with catfish, a common cut easily found and simple for cooks of all skill levels to prepare. “Every fish essentially has a filet on each side, so I take those filets and cut into quarters,” he says. “I cut one side of the filet in half, turn it over on the other side and you cut that in half. So, for each filet, you’re getting four pieces of fish.” This method is especially helpful to extend fish to feed a crowd.

He then puts his buttermilk in a disposable pan. He fills another pan with breading and seasonings. He uses Zatarain’s Crispy Southern Fish Fri. To give his fish an extra kick of flavor, he sprinkles each filet with a dash of Slap Ya Mama seasoning. “Every filet gets a little bit of love around here,” he says. “We take the filet, we put it in buttermilk and we batter it after that.” 

Once he has enough filets battered, he puts them in the fryer basket. “One of these baskets will hold about 3 or 4 pounds of filets,” he says. “Usually, it takes 4-5 minutes on average depending on how hot the grease is, just to make sure it’s thoroughly cooked.” After the time has elapsed and the fish is cooked, he takes the filets and lays them on trays covered in paper towels to soak up any excess oil. “We like to serve it with lemon, maybe some tartar sauce and some people like to make their own cocktail sauce.”

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!