Outdoor Writers Association of America
This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm

November 29th, 1999

But How Do You Kill A Fish?

I read something recently, and I wish I could remember where so I could give the story proper credit. It was about some folks fishing in Alaska, and the guide was a fellow from Australia or New Zealand (also a guide there - our reversed seasons make that possible). Anyway, the fishing was wonderful, everyone was having a fine time until someone from camp came up and told the guide he needed to keep a few fish for dinner. Seems the supplies didn't show up on time.

A lot of fly fishers practice catch and release, and in some places it is manditory. Turns out where the guide worked 'down-under' was indeed catch and release. The guide looked stunned, and then puzzled. He turned to the people he was guiding and said, "But how do you kill a fish?"

I've mentioned before we do encourage folks to keep a fish now and then - especially those just getting into fly fishing. We want them to know the responsibility of not just putting the fish back, but also to get a little fish blood on their hands and know they are part of a fishing tradition - an earlier time when one fed their family from their success or failure. A little connection with history if you will.


We have a very nice priest. No, not the Catholic Father of our Parish - it's the tool used to smartly rap a fish on it's head to kill it. It got the name 'priest' because it is used to administer the last rites to the fish. Ours is nicely varnished wood, about a half-inch diameter, round, about nine inches long, and has a heavy brass-weighted end (to rap the fish) a brass end cap with a raw-hide loop to attach to your vest. This is a traditional method used in Europe. Ron Kusse made this one for us, and we are honored to have it.

In all honesty JC and I don't keep many fish. I think we kept a salmon two years ago, and we did keep a few brook trout on the South Dakota Fish-In. (But only after asking the local fisheries fellow who came out to talk to us all one evening if there was a surplus and would it be alright to do so.) They were cooked over a campfire and wonderful.

We have explained how to make a fish more eatable to lots of folks over the years, but not in print that I recall. So here is the way we kill a fish: Once you have the fish on the bank, don't bop him on the head with a rock (or a priest). Reach into the gills and pull one side of the gills out. On larger fish use a knife and slice totally through the complete set of gills. The heart continues to pump and removes all the blood from the meat. If it is legal to gut the fish and leave the entrails streamside, only do that once the heart has stopped pumping. If you find this method unpleasant or terrible you probably shouldn't be keeping any fish. Get the fish on ice as fast as possible, and that doesn't mean sloshing around in water in a cooler.

Unfortunately we see a lot of fish mishandled. Fish not bled, especially big salmon like we have locally, will be very strong. Lying on a river bank in the sun for hours is criminal. Lack of knowledge on how to utilize the fish properly, in my opinion is inexcusable.

If you are using a different method to kill a fish, do try this one and see if the flavor of the cooked fish is not considerably better.

And if you never kill and keep a fish? Pass the information on to someone who does. ~ LadyFisher

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