Some anglers are only interested in fishing for the sport. You catch a nice fish, admire it for a second, take a picture, and toss it back. There is absolutely nothing wrong with leaving it at that. But if you plan to take your catch home and prepare it for dinner, you owe it to everyone around the table to do the fish justice.
Gutting a trout and wrapping it in tin foil is just fine for around a campfire. We have a fantastic campfire fish recipe to help you. But if you are going to prepare a fish, there are a few extra steps you should take. Both on the bank and at home, we have got a few tricks to improve the “keepers” that you do not want to throw back.
Why You Should Go To The Trouble
There are a lot of reasons to go the extra mile when preparing a fish you plan to cook. For starters, doing things the right way is more ethical and humane. We are talking about methods of killing fish that reduce its suffering and improve the quality of the meat. Taking a few extra minutes to properly dispatch your fish will improve the taste and presentation of the meat. Even more, it will preserve any eggs you take from the fish, whether you plan to use them for bait or eat them. Any fish you think is worthy of keeping is worth preparing correctly.
On The Bank
While on the river, you are probably focused mostly on how to get a fish in hand. Once you do, it is important to dispatch it quickly and begin preparing it by bleeding it. The process of bleeding the fish will produce much whiter, more tasty meat. Blood in the fish’s muscles and organs can also taint its eggs. This is problematic if you’re planning on keeping them. We have got three basic methods you can use to kill and bleed your catches as quickly and painlessly as possible.
For Small Fish
If you have got a smaller fish on the hook that you want to keep, the process of killing and bleeding is the same. All you will need is a pair of sturdy kitchen scissors. With the fish in hand, lift its gill plate to expose its gills. Just slip the scissors behind the gills and cut through them in one motion. Repeat on each side. Now you can pop the fish back in a net in the water and let it bleed out. Rapid blood loss will kill small fish very quickly, and also does the job of bleeding them.
Large Fish – The Bonk ’n Bleed Method
This method will probably be familiar to many of our readers. For larger fish, the best practice is to club it. You can do this using anything from a camp hammer to a large stick. Place the blow squarely on top of the fish’s head, between its eyes. If you do the job properly, the fish should die immediately.
Now you can handle it more easily. If you pick it up by the gill plate, you should be able to see that the thinnest point between the two gills is on the belly side. We’re talking about the thin space between the two gills, close to the jaw. This is where you want to pierce the fish with your knife, going all the way through to the other gill plate. Cut downwards, following the curvature of the gill plate. All the fish’s major arteries run through this spot, so the fish will begin to bleed very fast.
Now you can tip it upside down into the water and let the blood run out. Massage the fish’s back, around the spine, working from the tail toward the head. You want to push out as much of the blood left in the arteries as you can. After a minute or two, the fish will be mostly drained and ready to put on ice.
Large Fish – The Ikejime Method
If there is anybody that knows about processing fish, it is Japan. Ikejime is a traditional Japanese method for dispatching fish which involves piercing the fish’s hindbrain in one movement. This is widely accepted as the most efficient and humane method for killing fish. Ikejime may look primitive at first glance, but it works instantly.
Tools for ikejime usually include a strong, hollow stake and a long cable. Using the stake, pierce the fish’s skull above and between its eyes, aiming back toward the spine. Once this is done, a long cable is run down the hollow body of the stake and into the fish’s spine. This clears out toxins held in the fish’s spinal cord, improving your meat. Now you can bleed the fish normally, as described above, and you’re all done. Just drop your fish on ice and get back to casting.
In the Kitchen
How To Scale a Fish
Let us fast-forward. You are back home with your fish, which you’ve cleaned and filleted. One more step you can take is removing the scales. This improves the texture of the skin. Depending on the species (think salmon and other saltwater fish), you should always scale your catch if you plan to leave the skin on. This can be a messy process, so it is a good idea to use your fish mat and a layer of damp paper towels or even trash bags.
Once you have your fish laid out on your mat, you can remove the scales one of two ways. The first is with a box grater, the second is with a fillet knife. If you use a fillet knife, use the spine or back of the knife to scale the fish. Whichever tool you choose, the technique is the same. Working from the tail to the head, scrape the scales up and away firmly. You’ll notice that it doesn’t take much force to peel the scales away. It is helpful to do this next to the sink, so you can wash the scales away as you remove them.
Tips For Cooking Fish
Now there should be nothing left to do but cook it! When it comes to cooking fish, our philosophy is “less is more”. Having bled our catch already, the meat will taste fantastic on its own, so you do not need to do much to it. Whether you’re cooking bass, trout, sunfish, or salmon, the process is pretty much the same. For best results, we suggest that you:
● Cook your fish in a cast iron pan. Cast iron distributes heat very well and excels in cooking single cuts of meat like steak and fish. Depending on the size of your fish, a 10 or 12” pan will work nicely. Heat the pan over medium-high heat until you see faint wisps of smoke.
● Oil the pan after heating it. We want a hot pan, and the oil can begin to burn if we add it too soon.
● Lay the fish fillets down on the scale side first. This will give you nice, crispy skin. Let it cook until it begins to unstick on its own before flipping.
● Cook the fish for roughly ten minutes per inch of thickness. This is a good rule of thumb for thicker fillets like you see on a salmon. For smaller fish, you probably won’t need to even cook it for a full ten minutes.
● Once it’s cooked through, dress it simply. Like we said above, it does not take much. A little olive oil, lemon, salt, and freshly ground pepper are the go-to dressings. If you want to impress your dinner guests, you can add some greens like parsley or dill.
From The Water To The Plate
Simple as that! The key takeaway to all of this is that it does not take much effort to do it right. But that does not mean there is not a right way to do it. A little effort goes a long way. You will have a better meal and the satisfaction of knowing you harvested your catch humanely.
Nuff said. Bon appétit!
Conrad Lucas is a biologist, naturalist, and writer from Salt Lake City, UT. He specializes in bat ecology, and loves skiing, caving, canyoneering, climbing and fishing. You can follow him on IG @drinkfluoride and find his creative work at www.jconradlucas.com