By Mark Fike
So you have spent the day aboard a charter boat or out in your own boat or maybe you just hauled the fish in one after the other from the bank of your favorite river. The day has ended and the bucket is full of fish.
You are tired and you really are starting to dread the chore ahead of you as you head to the truck with your catch. There are many things that you could do with your fish but really there are only two things that should be done to do justice to your catch.
1-You could give the fish away to your friends or neighbors (They won’t mind cleaning a few dozen fish late at night right?)
2- You could do the job yourself and really enjoy the hard work later when you have company over.
Although I often give fish away to those that are close to me, I always clean my catch for them and for myself.
I have a friend who is known for fishing hard all day long. When his day is over he opts to throw his fish on ice for the night- often a few nights- until he faces the task ahead of him. By the time he gets to his fish they are stiff, slimy and rock hard.
Fish that are treated like this often end up being a tough chew at the table. Here are a few tips on keeping and cleaning your catch to keep it fresh and delicious after a long day on the water:
Fish should be kept alive for as long as possible to preserve the good taste and prevent the fish from having a tough or fishy texture. While this is not normal practice on charter boats headed out to fish the Bay or ocean, freshwater fishermen can either dump fish in a live well if in a boat or they can string the fish on a stringer.
If you are unable to keep fish alive then the next best thing to do is put them on ice as soon as possible. Don’t let the fish die before putting them on ice. Start the preservation process immediately.
It is very, very important fish that are caught be cleaned as soon as possible to keep them as fresh-tasting as possible. Fresh caught fish are the best tasting. I like to clean my fish at the water if at all possible for several reasons. One reason is that I can get the skin off the fish (which holds in the fishy taste) ASAP and I can dispose of the entrails and head at the water where some other creature can use them.
Check local regulations concerning when you can clean fish and if you can dispose of remains at your location. That means no mess at home, no smell and my wife does not get upset with me over scales or skin that is left around the house or basement.
Fish that are cleaned and placed on ice do much better than whole fish on ice. When cleaning your fish, start out by rinsing as much slime off the fish as possible to make your chore easier and less messy.
If you choose to filet your fish you will eliminate a lot of fishy taste as the bones and other pieces of entrails are taken out. There are two ways that I use to filet a fish. The first one involves skinning the fish prior to filleting it. This is much slower. However, it works.
To use this method I slice through the skin just back of the gills at an angle starting at the top of the head and angling back as I head for the belly. Do this on both sides. Next, use the tip of the knife to ease along the dorsal fin on both sides to the tail. Cut along the belly to the tail in the same manner.
Then peel the skin off with a pair of pliers. Multi-tools work extremely well for this and keeps its grip. I keep the fresh-tasting in my gear while fishing anyway for unexpected repairs.
Once the skin is peeled off, cut through the meat just behind the gills all the way to the bone along the same cut just like you did to slice the skin. Next, find the lateral line just above the ribs and cut through to the top of the rib cage and back to the tail.
Finally, slide your filet knife in next to the dorsal fin and work forwards and backwards slicing completely along the vertebrae of the fish. Do the same thing on the other side. Rinse off your filet and ice until done with all of your fish.
A quicker way to filet a fish is to simply make the cut behind the gills and turn the knife to the tail cutting through the ribs all the way to the tail. Bump along the vertebrae as you go. Stop short of the tail and flip the filet over and filet the meat from the skin leaving a nice slab of flesh. Finally, cut the ribs out of the meat and ice. This method also works well with an electric filet knife.
Storing your fish is extremely important. Other than eating your catch right away- which is recommended for best taste- freezing your fish is by far the easiest and most economical way to preserve your catch for another night.
Although there are several ways to freeze fish I will only talk about two of them because the others are very time consuming and demand far more patience than I care to have after being on the water all day.
Fish need to be totally covered in order to prevent freezer burn or all air needs to be removed from around the fish filet. Some people wrap fish up, shove them in a Ziploc and toss them in the freezer. I prefer to rinse my fish off, divide them into meal-sized portions and then layer them in a Ziploc bag.
Next, I put water on top of them to cover the fish entirely. Then squeeze the air out of the bag and zip shut. Stack the bags up in the freezer. They will stack flat and conserve space. Some people like to use cardboard milk cartons cut down. Those work well but take up a little more space and are hard to get if you do not use half-gallon cartons of milk. I eat too much fish to drink that much milk!
The second method works well too and that is by using a vacuum sealer. I do about half my fish this way. When using a vacuum sealer, be sure to get all the air out of the bag. With a wet filet that can be tough because your seal may not be totally sealed if water is crossing the heating element. To avoid this issue you can either fold and place a strip of paper towel just inside the bag before you start to seal so that it soaks up any water or juices that start towards the heating element as the vacuum sealer is sucking, or you can put filets on a cookie sheet, partially freeze them to crystalize the water on them and then vacuum seal.
One final note about storing fish. Oily fish such as blues or mackerel do not tend to last as long as other fish and therefore need to be consumed very quickly. I would not keep oily fish in the freezer more than 3 months unless you plan on feeding the cat.
Take care to cut the bloodline out of your filets to keep that fishy taste at bay. The bloodline is very noticeable as the dark red meat. Simply trim it out. A fisheries biologist once told me that pollutants settle in the skin and the bloodline of a fish. Why not get rid of it?
Freshwater fish can be frozen for up to 8-10 months before the quality of taste starts going downhill on them. I have cooked fish that were almost a year old in terms of storage and did not have a complaint. Clean and take care of your catch properly and you will be surprised at the taste! Take some Ziplocs and ice with you on your next trip along with your filet knife. Save yourself a mess at home. Good fishin!