A scrumptious fish dinner starts the moment the catch leaves the net, when the care you give it will make the difference between a memorable or simply mediocre meal. Whether you have a fire going under a skillet for a late-season shore lunch or are fishing to stock up the home freezer with fillets for the winter, prepping the catch is paramount to producing the best plate of fish possible.
It all begins in the landing process; fish bruise, and flesh that’s been battered by flopping on the deck or flipping against ice as it expires in a cooler isn’t going to taste as good as that from a fish that was handled gently. Once a fish is landed, it should be placed in a livewell, on a stringer, or dispatched with a solid whack to the head and immediately placed on ice. Anytime a fish that is intended for the table dies, it should be chilled to maintain optimum freshness. Otherwise, you should do all that you can to keep the catch alive until it is time to kill and clean them.
Fish stringers offer an alternative that many anglers employ, but don’t often use correctly. To keep a stringer’s contents alive and swimming, it’s important not to interfere with the gill area, and that’s just where many anglers insert the working end of a rope-style stringer or the business end of a safety-pin-type clip stringer. To eliminate damage to the fish’s gills, which will cause it to expire quickly, poke the pointed end of the metal on either type of stringer through the bottom lip of the fish and out its mouth. That position will allow the fish to open and close its mouth and pass water over its gill plates naturally to stay alive. It also helps the fish to maintain an upright position in the water.
You also want to make sure the stringer is tied to the boat or bank on the shady side and deep enough to hold the catch in cool, dark water. It goes without saying that stringered fish should never be towed in the water while a boat is underway. Place them in a bucket of cool water for short trips; dispatch them and place the fish on ice for extended cruises between fishing holes.
You should fillet or otherwise clean the fish as soon after it is killed as possible. By placing the fillets on ice, the flesh should remain palatable for three or four days. Once the flesh starts smelling “fishy” or feels mushy to the touch, it’s time to head for the seafood market for fresh fillets.
If the fish is not going to be eaten within three or four days, it should be frozen. A great method for keeping fresh fish ready for the table is to freeze the fillets in freezer bags filled with water. The trick is to get all the air out of the bag and to use only enough water in the bag to cover the fillet; otherwise, the ice expands and squashes the flesh. After putting the fillets in the bag, fill it with just enough water to cover them. Then squeeze the bag until just water comes out, before zipping it shut. Vacuum-packing is another excellent alternative.
Properly frozen fish, placed in freezer-style Ziploc bags made for the task and kept at temperature of 20 degrees or cooler, will make memorable meals for up to four months from the time they were netted—which should get you through the winter ahead.