WINNIPEG BEACH — The rod twitches lightly and Eric Labaupa jumps out of his seat. The telltale sign of a nibble. He pulls up to set the hook and starts reeling.
"Ah, it’s just a small one," he says, the excitement dropping from his voice before the fish breaks the surface. When you’ve been fishing as long as Labaupa, it’s easy to tell when you’ve got a keeper on the line.
After a photo and a quick inspection, he tosses the young sauger back into the murky brown water. Today, he’s on the hunt for walleye — or pickerel, as the mild freshwater fish is often marketed.
Walleye is the ideal local substitute for one of his favourite meals: Ginataan na Isda. In the Philippines, the dish, which means "done with coconut milk" in Tagalog, is typically made with milkfish or tilapia poached in coconut milk and aromatics.
It’s a calm sunny day on Lake Winnipeg, but so far the key ingredient is proving elusive. Walleye are usually an easy catch in the lake’s south basin this time of year, when their appetites are on overdrive after the spring spawn.
For the love of home cooking
Homemade is a regular feature celebrating recipies and home cooking in Manitoba. This fall, the Free Press is publishing a community cookbook of the same name to mark the paper’s 150th anniversary.
There are a handful of boats on the water and no one seems to be having much luck. Labaupa consults a map and adjusts his fish finder before disengaging the electric anchor and scooting off to a new spot. It’s OK that the fish aren’t biting. The chase is part of the fun.
"If you caught fish every time, I don’t think I’d be as addicted," he says.
Labaupa, 43, was practically born fishing. A famous family story is the time his dad, Franco, took his infant son out to St. Norbert for a fishing trip. Franco and his friend spent the day casting off the riverbank, while baby Eric hung out in the car, safe from the swarms of mosquitoes.
"They would take turns coming up to the car to check on me… he got in trouble for that," Labaupa says, laughing. "But that’s how addicted he was and I guess I just fed off of that."
From that point on, nearly every weekend of his childhood was spent fishing on the Red River with Franco. The Saturday morning wake-up call came at 6 a.m. and Labaupa would fall back asleep in the minivan on the way to their destination — Maple Grove, North Perimeter Park and Lockport were frequent haunts. His mom and younger sister often joined in and the family would while away the hours on the shore (Franco refused to get a boat for fear of capsizing). If the fish were biting, they enjoyed their haul for dinner that evening. Walleye, spiced with ginger and tamarind, was a prized catch.
Fishing is still a family affair for Labaupa; although, outings usually start a tad later these days, "I’m more a crack-of-nine guy now," he says. His wife and three kids are all talented anglers and his social media feed is full of family members posing with giant catfish, goldeye and pike pulled from local waterways (his handle, @eric_onthe_red, is an homage to his favourite river).
Labaupa has also managed to turn a beloved pastime into a career. Back in the boat, he points out the lures, lifejackets, rods and fishing electronics he promotes as a sales representative for different outdoor brands. The kit is a far cry from the makeshift stick and bobber he learned to fish with. His hat and shirt are emblazoned with the logo for his angling media company, Kickerfish, and he runs and competes in tournaments across the province.
Five years ago, Labaupa founded the Filipino-Canadian Anglers Association of Manitoba with hopes of making the local fishing scene a more welcoming place. The group was a direct response to the alienation he felt in other associations.
"They were some of the worst experiences, you go there (to learn) and you’re not welcome at all," he says. "It was very hard to win them over, it wasn’t fun."
Today, the membership includes more than 200 households with interest growing in other provinces. It’s just a fraction of the province’s large Filipino fishing community.
"It’s a huge thing, if you don’t fish you’re almost looked at like you’re weird," Labaupa says. "The Philippines are all islands, so the water is in our blood. It just comes naturally to us over here."
By the end of our day on the lake, there are three suitably sized walleye in the well and a dozen or so smaller fish that have been caught and released. It’s more than enough meat for Ginataan na Walleye.
Labaupa preps the ingredients for the dish — ginger, onion, Thai chilies and greens — with chef-like precision, wiping down his stove and kitchen counter in between each step. It’s a habit he picked up during one of his previous careers as a sous chef.
Prior to becoming a champion angler and fishing influencer, Labaupa worked in animation, served as a reservist with the army, cooked at a fly-in fishing lodge in northern Ontario, ran campaigns for local politicians and spent more than a decade in youth corrections. The latter is what prompted him to look for a lighter line of work.
"It’s a very dark place," he says of working at the Manitoba Youth Centre. "There was a suicide epidemic going on and so for my mental health, I dediced to chase the dream."
Standing over the pot of boiling coconut milk and lightly fried fish, Labaupa is back where that dream started — preparing a meal for his family with the spoils of another day spent doing what he loves. Fittingly, like everything else, Ginataan na Walleye is a recipe he learned from his dad.
Ginataan na Walleye
Submitted by Eric Labaupa
1/2 of a red onion, sliced
6 cloves garlic, pressed
One finger of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 cans (700 ml) coconut milk
6 red Thai chili peppers, whole
One bunch of yu choy or spinach (or other green)
2 tbsp fish sauce (patis)
2 whole walleye, cleaned, scaled and cut into steaks
1 tbsp sea salt
Salt the walleye steaks in a bowl, ensuring the salt is rubbed in to all the pieces. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes so the fish can absorb the salt. Heat cooking oil in deep frying pan or wok. Fry the fish until lightly browned on all sides. Remove from oil and drain by placing on a rack or on paper towel on a dish.
In a medium-sized pot, heat two tablespoons of cooking oil. Sauté the onions, garlic, and ginger until they are aromatic. Add the coconut milk and chili peppers and bring to a light boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the coconut milk reduces to slightly thick consistency. An option is to add some water or fish/lobster stock to create the desired consistency and flavour. Avoid breaking the peppers to achieve some heat without being overpowering. Of course, you can slice or break them up to make the dish spicier. Add two tablespoons of fish sauce and adjust to taste. Add the walleye steaks and yu choy, cover and simmer for five minutes.
Serve with jasmine white rice or whatever your rice preference is.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.