Vin T. Sparano, as excerpted from Complete Guide to Fresh and Saltwater Fishing
If you sit down at the dinner table and bite into a poor-tasting bass or walleye fillet from a fish you caught, there’s a good chance that the second-rate taste is your own fault. In all probability, the fish was not handled properly from the moment it came out of the water. Fish spoil rapidly unless they are kept alive or quickly killed and put on ice.
Here are the necessary steps involved in getting a fresh-caught fish from the water to the table so that it will retain its original flavor.
First, the decision to keep a fish dead or alive depends on conditions. For example, if you’re out on a lake and have no ice in your boat, you’ll want to keep all fish alive until it’s time to head home. Under no circumstances should you toss fish into the bottom of the boat, let them lie there in the sun, and then gather them up at the end of the day. If you try that stunt, the fillets will reach your table with the consistency of mush and a flavor to match. Instead, put your fish on a stringer as quickly as possible and put them back into the water, where they can begin to recover from the shock of being caught.
Use the safety-pin type stringer and run the wire up through the thin, almost-transparent membrane just behind the fish’s lower lip. This will enable the fish to swim freely, and the fish will recover from this minor injury should you decide to release it at the end of the day.
Do not shove the stringer under the gill cover and out of the mouth. This damages the gills and kills fish fast. Also, avoid cord stringers, where all fish are bunched in a clump at the end of the cord. This is perhaps acceptable on short trips for small panfish, which are generally caught in big numbers and quickly cleaned, but if you’re after bigger fish and want to keep them alive and fresh—either for the table or release at the end of the day—use the safety-pin stringer. It does its job well.
If you’re rowing or trolling slowly, you can probably keep the stringer in the water. If you have a big boat and motor, however, it’s a good idea to take the stringer into the boat for those fast runs to other hot spots. If the run is fairly long, wet down the fish occasionally, but don’t tow a fish in the water at high speed—you’ll drown it.
If you’re several miles from camp, use the following technique to get fish back alive. When returning to camp with a stringer of fish, stop your boat every half mile or so and ease the fish over the side. Let the fish swim around for five minutes or so before hauling them back into the boat and continuing the trip to camp. This way, you should have no trouble reaching camp with lively walleyes to be put in your shoreline live box. Keeping fish alive is especially important on extended trips to remote areas, where ice in sufficient quantities isn’t generally available.
On the subject of lengthy fishing trips to remote areas where ice is not available, you can still keep fish alive for a week or more. Your best bet is to use a homemade collapsible fish box, which can be weighted with a rock in a foot of water onshore or floated in deep water. Either way, the fish will stay alive until the end of the trip. Keeping fish alive for lengthy periods in remote areas is impossible without such a box. Keeping fish on a stringer at dockside will not work for long periods. With some wood and wire mesh, a fish box is easy to build. This assumes, of course, that a fish has been unhooked and is placed in the fish box in good condition. If it has been deeply hooked and appears to be dying slowly, however, it’s best to kill the fish immediately, gut it, and keep it on ice.
Killing a fish quickly is simple. Holding the fish upright, impale it between the eyes with the point of your knife or rap it on the head with a heavy stick. The important factor is killing it quickly, since the more slowly it dies the more rapidly the flesh will deteriorate.
If you’re a stream fisherman, it’s wise to carry your catch in a canvas or wicker creel. The canvas creel works fine, so long as it is occasionally immersed in water. The traditional wicker creel will work just as well, but it should be lined with ferns, leaves, or wet newspaper.
If you’re a surf fisherman, you can bury your catch in the damp sand. Just remember to mark the spot. A burlap sack occasionally doused in the surf also makes a practical fish bag. The important factor is to keep the fish cool and out of the sun.
Regardless of the various ways to keep fish cool, they should first be cleaned properly. With a bit of practice and a sharp knife, the job can be done in less than a minute.
Take a sharp knife and insert it in the anal opening on the underside of the fish. Slit the skin forward from there to the point of the V-shaped area where the forward part of the belly is attached to the gills. Put your finger into the gills and around that V-shaped area, and pull sharply to the rear. You will thus remove the gills and all or most of the entrails. Then, with the fish upside down, put your thumb into the body cavity at the anal opening, and press your thumbnail against the backbone. Keeping your nail tight against the bone, run your thumb forward to the head, thereby removing the dark blood from the sac along the backbone.
One more tip: More good fish meat is probably ruined during the drive home than during any other point in the trip from the water to the plate. Take the time to ice the fish properly for the trip home. Don’t pack the fish in direct contact with the ice. The ice is sure to melt, and the fish, lying in the water, might well deteriorate, becoming soft and mushy. It’s far better to put the fish in plastic bags, seal the bags so that they are watertight, and then pack the bags in ice. The fish will stay cool—and dry—until you get home.
When you get the fish home, scale or skin them. If they are freshwater fish, wash them thoroughly, inside and out, in cool tap water. If they are saltwater fish, prepare a heavy brine solution, and brush them thoroughly (a pastry-type brush works well) with the brine until they are clean.
Separate the fish into lots, each of which will make a meal for yourself or your family, and wrap each lot in freezer paper or plastic wrap. Then, package them in sealable plastic bags, sealing as tightly as possible to prevent freezer burn. Freeze the fish as quickly as possible.
About the Author: Vin T. Sparano is the author of Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia as well as three other guides for Rizzoli.
He has been an outdoor editor and writer for more than fifty years. He is editor emeritus of Outdoor Life, and has written and edited more than fifteen books about the outdoors. In 2013, he was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.