There’s something primal and satisfying about dropping your line in the water and catching your family’s meal. Dinner doesn’t get any fresher than filleted fresh fish. However, if you don’t know what you’re doing, that deliciously fresh catch could turn into a bacteria-infested mess by the time you get home. Then it’s pizza and disappointment for supper.
Fish are notoriously difficult to keep fresh after you’ve caught them. Their flesh decomposes much more rapidly than steak or chicken, and they’re more prone to bacterial growth. The key is not allowing them to die on their own. Either preserve them until you’re ready to dress them, or dress them immediately.
Keeping Them Alive
There are several good methods for keeping fish alive until you’re ready to dress them. None of them are entirely foolproof, so check your catch frequently to ensure they’re fairing well.
Put them on a stringer
A stringer is a line of loops that you insert through the gills and out the mouth. Lower the stringer into the water to keep your catch submerged. This method is best if the water is cold. If it’s warm, the fish are liable to die. Drawbacks: This method puts the most stress on the animal. Also, this isn’t a good method if you’re surf fishing. If you’re fishing from a pier, your meal could turn into someone else’s meal, as sharks tend to congregate near the cleaning stations.
Keep them in a basket
Baskets, usually made of wire mesh, do the same work as a stringer without the intrusiveness of the loops. Baskets have self-closing latches that prevent the animals from getting free, and a rope that lowers the basket into the water. Drawbacks: The wire can cause bruises if the animal is struggling. Additionally, baskets have to be large enough to accommodate your catch.
Keep them in a live well
A live well is a container with an aerator that keeps the water the clean and carbonated. It has to be big enough to hold your catch without crowding and it must be deep enough to allow the fish to stay upright. Drawbacks: Wells are expensive and again, must be large enough and deep enough for your fish.
Make them go dormant
Smaller fishes can be kept in flaked or shaved ice in a cooler or bucket, which will cause them to go dormant almost immediately. Position them upright and make sure they have plenty of room. Don’t overcrowd. Drawbacks: You may not realize it if a fish dies. Also, this technique is more difficult with larger species.
Dressing Your Catch
Dressing is the act of cutting off the head and gills, opening the stomach and removing everything from the cavity. You’re going to have to do this anyway, so if you’ve got the time, tools and the room, go ahead and do it the moment you reel one in. Pack the insides with flaked or shaved ice (never use cubes), then pack the fish themselves in ice, spaced out from one another. Drain off any water as the ice melts and replace the ice. Drawbacks: You have to be able to stop what you’re doing to dress the animal the moment it’s caught.
Whichever method you choose, just remember it’s imperative to check on your catch frequently. Look for melting ice, signs of stress or indications of fighting to keep your catch fresh. For extra tips, see our guide to keep fish fresh from water to table. Bon appetite!