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Sautéed walleye fillets with tarragon

Incredibly fresh, sustainably caught walleye fillets from the Red Lake Chippewa reservation require little more than salt, pepper and tarragon, then a quick sautée in butter to be delicious.

By Blue Kitchen / May 24, 2011

Fresh fish like walleye fillets need minimal cooking. To sautée fish fillets only requires butter and just a few minutes of cooking on each side.

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Fish are the last wild food. Well, they’re the last wild caught food humans eat on a large scale. And unfortunately, we’ve been eating them on too large a scale – according to the World Health Organization, we’ve doubled our per capita fish consumption in the last 50 years. Many species are in serious decline, and the fishing industry as a whole faces major challenges.

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In his book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg says this growing appetite for fish cannot be sustainably satisfied by wild fish alone and that fish farming or aquaculture will actually overtake wild catch in the next few years. Aquaculture is not without its own problems – efforts must be made to greatly reduce its environmental footprint. That’s why the success of the Red Lake Fishery’s wild caught walleyes is particularly heartening.

Red Lake in northern Minnesota is the sixth largest freshwater lake in America, just behind the five Great Lakes. Since 1889, The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians has controlled 83 percent of Red Lake as part of its reservation. But for centuries, the Chippewa had depended on the lake for food and for their way of life. They often referred the lake, with its plentiful fish, as their food store or food warehouse. Especially prized was the walleye. In 1917, with food shortages brought on by World War I, the Red Lake Chippewa and the state of Minnesota created the Red Lake Fishery to help feed the state. After decades of increasing demand and overfishing, the Red Lake walleye population was verging on extinction.

In one of those too rare stories of successful wildlife management, the Red Lake Chippewa got together with the state of Minnesota and the federal government to bring the walleye back. In 1998, they called a moratorium on virtually all walleye fishing on Red Lake and coupled it with a massive restocking program. By 2006, the walleye population had rebounded from a low of about 100,000 fish to a robust 7.5 million. The lake was reopened to subsistence and sport fishing; And in late 2007, the commercial fishery was reopened.

Today, fishing is much more carefully controlled. The Red Lake Chippewa have reverted to traditional, sustainable practices, even for their commercial fishing. Their fish are caught one at a time, by tribal fishermen and women using the old fashioned “hook and line” method. Several hundred tribal fishers support themselves and their families this way.

The Red Lake Chippewa may take an old fashioned approach to catching their fish, but their selling methods are mostly modern. Sure, if you’re in the neighborhood, you can stop by the fisheries and pick up fresh fillets. But you can also order your walleye by phone or on the Red Lake Nation Foods website. They offer fresh or quick-frozen fillets, skinless or skin on, for about $12 to $15 a pound, plus shipping and handling.

I was recently asked by the Red Lake Fishery if I would like to sample and review some of their walleye fillets. After reading their incredible story, I replied with an enthusiastic yes!