Easy smoked walleye cooked low and slow over alder wood. These fresh fish fillets are prepared in milk and dry seasoning and cooked on your backyard BBQ smoker in just 40 minutes.
Smoked walleye is becoming increasingly popular on the menus of high-end restaurants, and if it’s good enough for the restaurants to serve, then it’s good enough for us to prepare and eat at home too!
Walleye is a meaty fish with a mild taste, sometimes compared to the taste and texture of cod with a hint more sweetness, which makes it perfect for smoking.
If you’re looking to add a new dish to your smoked seafood recipe repertoire but aren’t au fait with fish, look no further. From fish filleting to smoker setup, discover how to smoke walleye at home today.
What is Walleye?
The walleye is a large freshwater fish in the Perch family native to rivers in the North American regions between the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountains.
What makes the walleye unique is its difference in taste compared to other freshwater fish. It produces firm, fine-flaked filets with hardly any bones and has a sweet yet subtle flavor with a buttery texture.
This fish is named as such as it has large, flat opaque eyes, which make it look as if it’s blind but in fact gives it a distinct advantage over other fish as its eyes act as a reflective surface, allowing it to detect and find prey in the dark.
Walleye can also go by a few other common names such as dory, yellow pike, freshwater pike, pickerel, or pike-perch.
How to Buy Walleye
When buying walleye for smoking, you want to ensure you’re getting the best quality, so it’s important to know what to look out for and what to avoid.
Fresh walleye shouldn’t have an obviously fishy smell or feel slimy, and the meat should feel firm and succulent. Walleye meat holds a good amount of moisture, so if it looks dried out, it’s a sign that it’s not fresh or hasn’t been stored or transported correctly.
Ideally, it’s best to buy the walleye as the whole fish rather than individual pre-cut fillets as you can be more sure of the overall freshness of the fish, plus it gives you more options when it comes to grilling and smoking.
Eye Tests for Fish?
One tip often given when checking fish for freshness is to look at the eyes – if the eyes are shiny, clear and round or bulging, the fish is fresh. If the eyes are cloudy or flat, then it’s not fresh.
The only problem with walleye is that they naturally have opaque and flat eyes even when they are straight out of the water when freshly caught; this is why it’s best to check instead if it smells, if it’s slimy, and if it’s succulent when picking a good walleye for cooking.
How to Fillet a Walleye for Smoking
Walleyes can produce lovely thick chunks of fillet when handled and cut properly. Let’s take a closer look at the process of filleting a walleye to prepare it for smoking.
First things first, we need to clean and trim the walleye. Make sure to have a sharp filet knife to hand; it helps if the blade has a little bit of flexibility to it as it makes cleaning and deboning the fish a lot easier.
- Starting behind the front fin, cut down diagonally (towards the head) until the blade meets the backbone
- Run the tip of the knife along the backbone. This is to release the meat up to the top of the rib cage. You’ll know if the blade is deep enough as you can hear/feel it run across the rib bones.
- Once you hit the end of the ribcage, you can slide the knife all the way through the fish and then carry on cutting down the length of the backbone to the tail
- Open up the cut along the backbone and carefully slice through the meat, releasing it from the rib cage
- Once all the meat is released, cut along the skin, and you have a walleye fillet
- Repeat the same process on the other side of the fish
There will be a small amount of belly meat running along the bottom of the fillet (it has a bit more of an iridescent white look to it). This can be trimmed off as it can sometimes be tough and doesn’t have as nice of a taste as the rest of the walleye fillet.
There will be a row of pin bones in the middle of your walleye fillet around the same area as the ribs were attached. They actually sit on a line you’ll be able to see that comes from the center of the tail and runs along the length of the fillet.
To remove them, cut either side of the line where they run and remove it from the fillet. It might seem like you are cutting out a main part of the fillet, but it’s full of those tiny pin bones and gives you a much better cut of fish for cooking.
Why Soak in Milk?
You’ve probably heard that you should soak fish in milk before cooking, and walleye is no exception, but do you know why we do it?
Once a fish is caught and left out of the water, it starts to develop that characteristic fishy smell. The longer it’s left before cooking, the more pronounced the fishy smell and taste will become, which isn’t to many people’s liking. Luckily we can fix this fishiness by soaking our fish in milk for around 20 minutes before cooking it!
The proteins in the milk bind with and neutralize the compound, called Trimethylamine, in the fish that are causing the fishy smell. Once they are removed, you will have a brighter and fresher smelling (some people even say that it helps the fish to taste sweeter) piece of walleye that is ready to cook.
Cooking Times & Temperatures
Regardless of what we’re cooking, we need to keep an eye on the internal temperature of the meat, as that’s what tells us when something is safe to eat. With fish, the internal temperature (shown on an instant-read thermometer) needs to hit 145℉ (63°C) for it to be fully cooked.
A smoker set to 250℉ (120°C) should take around 40 minutes for the walleye to hit the needed internal temperature.
Best Wood for Smoking Walleye
Choosing the right type of wood when smoking is important as you don’t want to overwhelm the flavors of your meat with too rich or overpowering a smokey taste. Since fish already has a distinct natural flavor, you need a mild wood that compliments it well and doesn’t add a bitter taste.
Alder is the best wood for smoking walleye as it brings a nice mild smokey flavor that doesn’t detract from the overall taste of the fish.
If you do want to infuse a bit more flavor, it’s best to stick to mild fruit woods such as pecan or applewood. For an understated sweet and smokey taste, maple can also work well.
Don’t Forget the Freshwater Scallops!
One hidden gem on a Walleye that many people miss is the cheeks! Walleye cheeks are somewhat of a delicacy and are also known as fresh water scallops as they have the same texture and size as sea scallops. They are also cooked in the same way (seared in a hot pan with butter, cooked for 1-2 minutes on each side until the meat is opaque and starts to brown) and have a very similar taste but with a hint of sweetness.
- baking sheet
- Alder smoking wood
- 2 lbs walleye fillets deboned and skin-on
- 1 stick unsalted butter cubed
- whole milk
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp onion powder
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 2 tbsp dried dill
- 3 tbsp smoked paprika
- Preheat your smoker to 250℉ (120°C)
- While smoker preheats, place walleye fillets in a bowl of milk. Soak for 20 minutes.
- In a small bowl, combine the dry seasoning ingredients. Combine thoroughly, removing or crushing any lumps with a fork.
- Remove walleye from milk bath and apply dry seasoning blend evenly across fillets, covering both sides
- Place seasoned walleye on a baking sheet. Place the small cubes of butter on top of the fillets.
- Put the baking tray of walleye fillets into the smoker for 40 minutes, or until fish internal temperature hits 145°F (63°C)
- Plate and serve immediately
Do you leave the skin on walleye?
When smoking walleye, it’s best to leave the skin on as it helps to hold the meat together. If you were going to fry or cook walleye in a different way, then it’s down to personal preference if you remove the skin or not.
Do we need to descale walleye?
If we were preparing fish to cook any other way, then it would make sense to descale it. When preparing walleye (or any fish) for smoking, it helps to leave the scales on as it gives the skin more structural integrity and stops it from sticking to the smoking racks.
How long does smoked walleye keep?
Hot-smoked walleye fillets will keep for 3-4 days in the refrigerator if stored correctly. While you can freeze it, the quality will deteriorate significantly, so we don’t recommend it.