By Doug Olander
While catch-and-release fishing is widely popular, most anglers still relish the opportunity to cook up fresh fish they’ve brought home. But what they do with those fish, once in the boat, makes an enormous difference in flavor and firmness of fillets on the plate. Simply unhooking fish and throwing fish into a fish box or cooler with no ice, to flop around and slowly die, guarantees minimal quality and often an unpalatably strong flavor.
Taking care of fish properly isn’t difficult and the rewards are high. Here are five easy ways to ensure those fish dinners you have at home are just as good as you imagined they’d be.
1. Getting Your Fish On Board
You may think fish care starts at home, but it starts as soon as the fish hits the deck. Even more specific, HOW you get the fish on the deck. Since fish are living animals, the way they are treated can affect the meat in the long run. Gaffing a fish is a classic way to get a fish onboard, and AFTCO has been making gaffs for many many years. If interested in this method, consider reading our How to Gaff A Fish blog.
But we are going to also recommend two other options. The reason we also recommend these options is because gaffing a fish, although the easiest and most common way, creates a large hole in the meat of a fish. This introduces bacteria quickly into the meat of the fish allowing for areas to easily spoil. This also makes the fish stressed out which in turn secretes stress hormones through the meat making the meat less firm and spoil faster. For this reason, we recommend a landing net, or grabbing the fish with your hands.
These are not always options which is why gaffs are needed, but a landing net can cradle a fish making it hard for it to escape and not stressing it out as much. Grabbing by hand is the best method but if done wrong can be dangerous and give the fish a chance to escape. Having a good pair of gloves to grab fish is highly recommended and AFTCO’s Utility Gloves and AFTCO’s Release Gloves are great options to get a good grip of a fishes tail or the gills to bring the fish on board.
2. Killing Your Fish
Whatever your preferred method to kill fish you’ll keep to eat, do it immediately after pulling them into the boat, for two great reasons. First, it’s the humane thing to do. Just tossing them into a fish box to slowly suffocate and desiccate is unnecessarily brutal. Also, such stress can degrade the quality of the flesh. Secondly, for the next step — bleeding — you need to deal with an inert fish, not one flopping around wildly.
The most common means to dispatch a fish is with a fish bat or long, heavy object for the purpose of administering a solid whack or two on top of the head. That’s typically enough to stun them. Pounding the bejeebus out of a fish’s head until the skull caves in is — pun notwithstanding — overkill, perhaps suggesting anger-management issues. If stunning fish is your preferred method, keep a fish billy within arm’s reach of the cockpit.
Less widely used but arguably preferable is the method called ike jime. This method, of Japanese origin, this is the quickest and most humane method, and is proven to keep the fish’s flesh in the best condition.
The angler pushes a knife with a stiff blade, a sharp phillips screwdriver or a special ike jime tool into the fish just above and behind its eye, then wiggles it around. If placed properly, the tool penetrates the fish’s brain, killing it immediately, and the fish will go limp. For a beginners guide to Ike Jime to help you with this, we found this blog from the IkeJimeFoundation to be very helpful.
3. Bleeding Your Fish
The easiest way to guarantee high-quality fillets is simply to bleed any fish you catch right away. Failing to do so is the surest way to produce fillets darker in color with a strong, “fishy” flavor. Blood is a conduit for rapid bacterial spoilage of the flesh. Get rid of the blood immediately, and fillets stay lighter and milder.
Ryan Griffin making the cut.
Some anglers bleed fish by making a deep vertical cut just behind the gills, but for most fish, an easy, sure approach means slicing through the narrow area at the throat, between the gills. This severs the vein that runs from the heart to the gills; blood should start pumping out immediately. It’s best if you can do this with the fish in water — over the side or in a fish well or bucket — since it will bleed out much faster than in the air (while also keeping blood from spraying into the boat).
4. Cooling Your Fish
As soon as your fish is killed and bled, the remaining critical step requires immediate cooling. “Ice is key,” says Robby Gant, AFTCO’s tackle brand manager. “The more the better: We try to bring a pound of ice per each pound of fish we figure we’ll want to keep,” he says. If you’ll be boating large fish, such as tuna, invest in a quality kill bag should your boat lack an insulated fish locker of sufficient size. Gant points out that a cheap kill bag won’t keep your ice solid for long.
Whatever you put your fish into, if you’re fishing coastally, add saltwater to the ice. Saltwater of course freezes several degrees colder than freshwater. “The saltwater along with the ice makes an unbelievably cold slurry to surround your fish and give you the best product,” Gant says.
Prime tuna specimen enjoying a post mortem ice bath. Photo: Ryan Griffin
5. Freezing Your Fish
At home, if you have enough fish to freeze, remember that air is your enemy. That is, air sealed in with fillets will cause freezer burn and promote deterioration fairly quickly. A vacuum sealer will keep fillets without the air, and they can be fine to eat even a year later. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, Gant suggests you approximate its function by using heavy Zip-Loc or similar plastic bags. Put a serving or two in a bag then, without zipping it completely closed, force it down into a bowl or bucket of water while keeping the corner of the top with the opening just above surface. This will force the air inside the bag up and out. Then zip it up when all the air is out. “Done correctly,” Gant says, “once you pull the bag out of the water, the plastic should have formed tightly around the fillets.”
Again, the vacuum sealer is best, but this method should give you at least two or three months to keep fish in good shape. If you are wondering how to store fish in the freezer, you will want to lay them horizontally in order to keep the fish or fillets straight. Freeze one bag at a time to completion, and then stacking them on top of each other is okay. Learn more about Vacuum sealers in our "9 Secrets to Vacuum Sealing Fish".
6. Use A Good Fillet Knife
A high-quality, purpose-designed fillet knife means better, cleaner fillets and offers both convenience and safety. “I prefer razor-sharp German stainless steel,” says Capt. Andy Mezirow, who operates Gray Light Sportfishing out of Seward, Alaska. A fillet knife less than razor sharp leads to ragged fillets, wasted meat and too often cut fingers. The skipper cites AFTCO’s fillet knives the best he’s used in his long career. Some of the attributes that make these knives so effective include: Böker German stainless steel blades with corrosion-resistance and a non-slip handle designed for optimal anatomic and ergonomic grip.
Mezirow uses the 10-inch AFTCO knife for most of his fillet work, particularly salmon. But he’ll use the 8-inch when filleting smaller, thick-skinned and heavy-boned bottomfish, and the 12-inch for halibut or large tuna. For anglers who fillet fish less often, he points out that shorter blades are easier to control.
Mezirow adds, “I use a diamond steel to sharpen my knives during the season, then send them off to be professionally sharpened in the off-season.”
“I work by myself, which means every fish that is kept is iced, bled and ultimately filleted by me. I view care and processing of the catch to be another aspect of judging the quality of a guide. There’s no point in taking fishermen out to kill a bunch of fish if you don’t care for that catch on board, and then deliver fish-market-quality fillets to the clients. Its all part of the deal.”
- Capt. Andy Mezirow