Caring For Your Catch By Braden Niper
One of the many great joys in life that anglers can choose to enjoy that most other members of our society never get to experience is the ability to sit down to a meal of truly fresh fish. The majority of “fresh” fish that is sold in fish markets or grocery stores is at least 2 or 3 days old, with much of it having been on ice considerably longer. The best meal I ever ate was a trio of Mahi tacos grilled up 98 miles offshore with fish that had been swimming less than an hour before. I believe it to be an anglers duty to make the most of any fish they decide to harvest. It still shocks and saddens me to routinely see anglers neglect and waste much of the fish they keep.
Keeping Fish Fresh: I personally believe heat ruins more fish and fish dinners than any other factor. I routinely see summertime anglers keeping fish in a half a bucket of water or dry burlap bags for hours and hours at a time. Fish that are allowed to perish and get warm or hot before being cleaned are destined to taste bad or be downright dangerous due to spoilage.
Make sure you have a plan before you begin fishing as to what you will do with your fish after you catch it. When possible keep your catch alive as long as possible either in a live well or on a stringer that will allow them to swim and breathe. Fish kept in this manor fish stay in great condition until you are ready to bleed and clean them. In many situations, however either due to location or size of the fish it will not be possible to keep them alive. Under such circumstances cooler and ice are your tools for keeping fish fresh. As soon as a fish is caught, bleed it and then submerge the fish in an ice and water mixture; mixing a small amount of water with the ice will allow for much more surface contact then just throwing the fish on ice alone and will therefore cool it down faster. Many anglers make the mistake of not bringing a cooler large enough or enough ice to handle the fish they plan to keep. If you are fishing for 30lb fish and your plan consists of a Styrofoam cooler and a 8 lb bag of ice from Walmart, you are going to have a problem.
Bleeding Your Catch: Bleeding the fish that are to be kept is slowly becoming more and more popular across the country for everything from blue catfish to bluefin tuna. Some anglers maintain that on a number of fish species bleeding does nothing to improve the flavor, but I am a big believer in bleeding all fish. The flesh of fish that have been properly bled will have a much lighter appearance than fish that have not been bled leading to a more pleasant appearance in the pan or on your plate. Bleeding darker meat species such as tuna, king mackerel, yellowtail, or bluefish will have a dramatic effect on the taste of the fish as bleeding will also help remove the “oiliness” of the meat.
The quickest and cleanest way to bleed most fish species is to cut through the throat latch at the bottom of the gills with a sharp knife or kitchen shears, and then allow the fish to bleed out back in water. I personally place fish headfirst in a bucket or barrel of water for 10 or so minutes before transferring them to my cooler, doing so will keep the boat and my cooler much cleaner. If I am fishing from the bank in a spot where I don’t have access to ice, I will simply keep my fish on a stringer until a few minutes before I am ready to leave and then bleed them out on the stringer in before leaving the lake.
Cleaning / Filleting Your Catch: There are more ways to clean a fish then there are to skin the proverbial cat. Most fish are either gutted and gilled or have the head removed and eaten whole (very popular with trout, smaller catfish, panfish, ect) or filleted. Neither process is difficult to learn, but take time and practice to master. There are so many articles and videos out there I am not going to try to explain the exact fish cleaning process in this article, but look for our how to fish cleaning videos in the not too distant future. The best advice I can give on fish cleaning is to NOT speed through your fish. Take your time, and let the fishes bone structure guide your knife.
The other piece of advice I have is to use tools designed for the job. Trying to fillet fish with a heavy, thick, or dull blade just doesn’t work, just like using a razor-sharp fillet knife to saw through the backbone of a fish is a sure way to not have a sharp fillet knife for long. My preferred knife for 90% of the filleting I do is the Dexter Russel 7″ with sani-safe handle. I have used this knife to fillet thousands of perch and scup but it has also handled its fair share of 20 lb+ striped bass and cod. The only time my other fillet knife (the Dexter Russel 9″) comes out to play is when I am cutting flat fish such as fluke or flounder where a longer blade allows me to remove more meat with fewer swipes of the knife. Keeping a sharp edge on a fillet knife is critical, and I am big proponent of drag across knife sharpers such as the Dexter Edge-1. A few quick passes of the sharpener before the knife is completely dull and you are right back to a razors edge.
Many people wouldn’t think of a Kitchen Style Shear as a fishing necessity, but after years on the water I now consider the Dexter SofGrip Shear a vital piece of my fishing equipment. A sharp pair of shears is great for trimming the fins or gills off a fish that is to be eaten whole, and lastly, they provide the fastest and safest way to bleed any fish that is to be kept for the table.
Freezing your Catch: Whenever possible I do my absolute best to enjoy my fish fresh, that being said sometimes individual fish are large enough to provide many meals or I landed on a great bite of tasty little bottom dwellers, that is when it is time to start thinking about freezing part of the catch. In general, if at all possible, try to vacuum seal any fish that you are planning on freezing for more than a few weeks. Fish really does hold up much better and avoid freezer burn if you can vacuum seal them. If you do not have access to a vacuum sealer, your best bet will be to complete submerge the fish in either fresh water if it is fresh water fish, or clean salt water if it is a saltwater fish.
Like most anglers, I release the vast majority of the fish I catch each year, but that certainly doesn’t stop my family from enjoying a meal of truly fresh fish when we get the chance. Just make sure to take care of those fish from the minute they come out of the water, to the minute you enjoy that first bite.