Our Man In Canada
October 3rd, 2005

If Keeping a Fish to Eat, Do It Properly!
By Vera Jones, BC

IT'S A FACT THAT MOST FLY FISHERS PRACTICE CATCH-AND-release, but many keep part of their catch for consumption. After all, shocking as it may seem to those who advocate strict catch-and-release for all fish at all times, the original intent of fishing was not for enjoyment, but to put food on the table. And for some anglers in some situations, this is still the case; however, those who choose to fly fish enjoy the best of both worlds. Compliance with fishing regulations and moral values aside, some anglers release everything they catch simply because they don't like the taste of fish. I can't help but wonder if the reason for their dislike might be related to having never tasted fresh, properly cared-for and prepared fish. Unfortunately, a lot or fish is wasted because anglers don't follow a few simple steps to ensure it stays in prime condition.

Although it's impossible to cover field care and storage for all fishing situations, there is one practice that should always be avoided: Never, ever, place live fish on stringers. The stress of being caught then dragged around in the warmer surface water is often enough to do them in, and once a fish dies the flesh starts absorbing water through osmosis. Immediately! For this same reason, dead fish—uncleaned or cleaned—should never be stored in water.

Anglers who traditionally keep fish for consumption know the value or being well prepared ahead of time. If wading or fishing from shore, a woven wicker creel or canvas bag serves to carry their catch. A creel provides ventilation, and can be lined with greenery like ferns or willow branches, which keeps the fish separated so the air moves freely between them. An alternative is to carry a few sheets of coarse, clean burlap, which can be dampened, squeezed fairly dry, then crumpled up and placed between the fish. A canvas creel should also contain greenery or burlap, but has an added advantage—it can be occasionally dipped into the water to wet down the exterior. Evaporation of the water then provides a cooling effect to the interior.

Never place dead fish in direct sunlight to dry out, in a plastic bag to cook in its own rapidly decaying juices, or in the rubberized pouch of a fishing vest for the same reason.

Anglers fishing from boats generally have aboard an insulated cooler or box containing ice, either crushed, blocks, or cubes in plastic bags. Crushed ice is best as the fish can be completely covered and layered, chilling them thoroughly. Frozen gel packs are also suitable, and can be reused as often as necessary after washing them off and refreezing the contents.

The ideal cooler has a plastic, wood or metal grid that fits in the bottom, which allows ice water and fluids from the cleaned fish to trickle out through a drain tap. A cooler should be long enough to allow large fish to be laid straight, as rigor mortis (stiffening of muscle tissue) occurs after death. Cleaning or filleting a bent or curved fish is difficult, and straightening it out tears the flesh apart.

Once a decision is made to keep a fish, it should be killed as quickly and humanely as possible. In most cases, a sharp blow to the top of the head will suffice, but some saltwater species like rockfish, flounder and halibut seem almost indestructible. They are best stunned, then their gills cut to bleed them.

Carry a sharp knife to bleed and clean your catch. If you can't clean a fish right away, the following quick method of bleeding it offers a temporary solution. Hold a fish by its head so the tail hangs down. Insert a knife blade cross-ways through the top of the gills, then cut downward to the throat by following the curve of the gill. Grasp the wrist of the tail and quickly turn the fish upside-down. The amount of blood that gushes out is surprising, and it takes only a few seconds to drain almost completely. If in a boat, this last step should be done while holding the fish over the water—and don't worry, the blood is biodegradable. This simple procedure takes only a few seconds, but removing blood from the flesh enhances its quality and is also of benefit for long-term frozen storage.

A fish should be cleaned or filleted as soon as possible, but this isn't always possible. My only advice here is that while cleaning a fish, take care not to puncture the innards, for the contents will taint the flesh. Also, ensure that you remove all of the gills and kidney—that dark, congealed bloodlike strip along the backbone—for these are the first organs to start decaying.

Rather than immersing a fish in water to wash it off, rinse it quickly with sprayed water, then wipe it clean with a damp cloth or paper toweling. If there is no spray available, simply wipe it clean and package it for storage.

At home, fish stores well for a day or two in the refrigerator. Place smaller fish in a resealable plastic bag nestled in a container of ice. Drain the container and replace the ice as necessary. Alternatively, line a container with a dampened towel or paper towels, place the fish on top, then cover the container with plastic wrap.

Freezing fish at home requires proper packaging materials that provide good barriers against oxygen and water vapor. Polyethylene plastic bags (like bread bags) and wax paper don't work because they are too porous. "Cling wraps" like Saran Wrap provide the required barrier, plus they cling tightly to the fish thus discouraging air pockets. Aluminum foil is also nonporous, but as it punctures easily it should be used only as an initial wrap.

There are several ways to freeze fish successfully. For short-term storage, press cling wrap or foil over the fish to squeeze out the air. A secondary outer wrap is necessary — I recommend heavy freezer paper that is waxed on the inside and allows writing the contents and date on the outside. Alternatively, the fish can be placed in a polyester "freezer" bag (others are not suitable). Then submerge the bag in a sink or container of cold water so as to squeeze out the air. Seal the bag and use a secondary wrap over it.

Glazing fish with a coating of ice isn't practical for home use because it takes time and an extremely low freezer temperature, but a similar method uses Tupperware or similar plastic containers and allows for long-term storage. Put fish and a bit of water in the container, then place it in the freezer. When frozen, add enough water to cover the fish. The previous bit of water will anchor it so it won't float. Refreeze. Top up with water if any part of the fish protrudes from the ice. Another long-term storage procedure is to place fish in a polyester "freezer" bag. Squeeze out air, seal and place in the freezer. When the fish is frozen, place the package inside another slightly larger freezer bag, add a bit of water in between the two bags, then seal the outer bag. Freeze again to anchor the inner bag; then open the outer bag to add more water. Replace in the freezer, water-filled side down, and refreeze.

There are several ways of defrosting fish. If you have ample time, thaw fish in the refrigerator, but expect it to take 24 hours for a 1-lb (5OO-g) package. For faster thawing, submerge the fish in a bowl of cold water, adjusting the faucet so a steady stream circulates and spills out of the bowl. Be sure to keep the fish in its vapor-proof wrapping while it's thawing. A 1-lb package will take from 30 to 60 minutes to thaw. Microwaving will thaw frozen fish at defrost power (about 30 percent), with a 1-lb portion will taking about five minutes. Follow the manufacturers' instructions.

Never keep thawed fish for cooking later. Prepare it immediately. On the other hand, a single portion or a few portions of fish frozen in a small block can be baked, poached, and broiled without thawing—just double the cooking j time. This is an excellent way to preserve flavor, moisture and nutrients.

Deep frying in hot oil or pan frying is the most common way of serving fish. Chill the fish pieces to lessen the amount of oil they will absorb during cooking.

Overcooking fish is a common abuse. The general rule, applicable to all fish, is 10 minutes for each inch (4 minutes for each cm) of thickness measured at its thickest point. Thus, cooking a fish or fillet that is i" thick requires five minutes on one side, then five on the other.

Despite what people who don't like eating fish maintain, most fish is safe to eat. The largest risk of illness comes from consuming raw oysters, clams and mussels. Reports and epidemiological studies by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, which compiled data on illnesses caused by food, indicate that by excluding raw mollusks and shellfish, the risk of illness drops to one in a million — much below beef and poultry.

The second largest risk is from fish taken in recreational and subsistence fisheries, when contamination occurs during handling, storage or cooking. In other words — bacterial or viral infection can be eliminated by proper handling, storage and cooking. It's that easy. Putting the risk into perspective, you're 10 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to become ill from eating fish. ~ Vera Jones

Credits: From Fly Fishing Canada, from Coast to Coast by the Outdoor Wirters of Canada, Published by Jonson Gorman Publishers, Calgary Alberta Canada.

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