Anglers who are blessed to bring home fish from their ventures are typically treated to table fare that is superior to seafood available for sale in stores and restaurants. While the freshness is a primary factor, the opportunity to make sure the fish is properly cared for and processed is important as well. For salmon and steelhead, there are several things you can do to make sure your catch becomes as tasty of a meal as possible. Even though this will primarily focus on salmon and steelhead, these three techniques could be used on other fish species to improve your final product.
As soon as you land your fish, it is important to “bleed” it. This bleeding process removes as much blood as possible from the fish’ system, especially from the meat. On a salmon, bleeding is best done by cutting through the gills of the fish; You do this by pulling out on the gill-plate of the fish, and pushing a knife through the red gills moving from the its mouth towards its tail. A noticeable amount of blood should start coming out of the gills. You can hold the fish by the tail, pointing its head towards the ground to allow gravity to help the blood flow. Another option is placing the fish head first into a five gallon bucket or other container with enough water in the bottom to submerge the gills. The water will help prevent clotting and encourage blood flow. It is recommended that you do this immediately after landing the fish, but if you happen to forget, the fish’ heart will generally pump for about 15 minutes after the fish is dead. Even if it is after 15 minutes, cutting the gills will not hurt anything and it might be worth trying to get as much blood out as possible.
Once the fish is done bleeding, you should try to cool it as fast as possible. In some near-freezing conditions, keeping the fish cool is as simple as leaving it lying on the bank. In warmer outside conditions, but in places where the water is still very cold, you can put the fish on a rope and let it hang in the water. Preferably, unless either of these options will keep the fish near freezing, placing them in a cooler with ice is best. The longer it is going to be until you are done fishing for the day and the fish can be processed or make it to another cool storage place, the more imperative it is that you keep the fish cold in the meantime. Sometimes buying and bringing ice can seem like a waste of money, but it is a cheap way to enhance the quality of your fish. If you cannot get over paying a couple bucks for ice, fill some empty 2-liter bottles with water and throw them in the freezer. Bring the two liters with you on fishing day and either throw them in the cooler as is, or smash them on the ground to break it into chunks and cut open the bottle.
Wait twenty-four hours before you cut up the fish. That is, if you can resist the temptation to fillet it and eat it that night. If you are not in a big hurry to eat the fish, waiting a day to process it will make the process easier. Once the fish has gone through the entire rigor mortis cycle and it has been thoroughly chilled, the meat is firmer and the fish is easier to handle and cut. Before filleting or steaking, make sure to remove the slime and scales from the fish. I prefer to do this by laying the fish on the ground and using a direct stream of water along its side at between a 30 and 45 degree angle. Spray tail to head and belly to back (experimenting with your nozzle angle for optimum scale removal) until the scales are gone. You can also use a heavy bristled brush, or nail several bottle caps onto a piece of wood, jagged side pointing up, and scrape the scales off tail to head with your homemade device. If you decided to use this method, spray the fish with vinegar and let it stand for a few minutes prior to scraping, the vinegar helps break down the slime and makes the scales scrape off easier.
If you are not employing these tricks yet, you are depriving yourself of a superior final product. Hopefully these tips will help you increase the quality of your catch as table fare. Happy fishing and happier eating!