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Handling Fish the Right Way

Simple Steps

  1. Knock the fish out using a small club
  2. Bleed out the fish
  3. Gut the fish (check regulations!)
  4. Ice the fish
  5. Freeze or cook the fish

Detailed Explanation of Field Dressing

  1. Knock the fish on the top of the head using a small club.  If the fish is small enough I'll just whack them with my needle-nose pliers.  The goal there isn't to kill them, but just to immobilize the fish so that they don't flop around and damage their meat.
  2. Bleed the fish by cutting or ripping the gills, which will allow the blood to be pumped out.  I normally just grab the gills with my needle-nose pliers and rip them out.  You will know if it worked right away because the fish's blood is pumped through the gills, so you should see lots of blood.

    It's best to put the fish into water while it bleeds.  This will prevent the blood from clotting.  I put small fish into a water-filled bucket that I keep on board.  Bigger fish can temporarily be hung over the side on a stringer.

    Don't wait too long - you only need to bleed them from 2-4 minutes.
  3. Gut the fish and remove the head and gills.  This is important because it prevents 'belly burn' caused by the fish's own acids, enzymes and bacteria.  This can be a big contributor to the mushy effect.  Be sure to check your regulations, because this is prohibited with certain species and on certain bodies of water.  If there are length restrictions you might have to leave the head attached.
  4. Put the fish on ice.  There should be ice surrounding each fish in the cooler.  Make sure to allow the water to drain away from the fish - you don't want your fish floating in slimy melt water.  Sometimes I'll put the fish in a garbage bag or zipper freezer bag to separate it from the melted water in the summertime.

At Home

Remember to freeze any fish you are not planning on immediately eating.  At home, I'll usually do the final steps like filleting, skinning, and de-boning the fish right before I freeze or cook it.  It's a good idea to keep the temperatures ice cold (32 degrees F) to prevent bacterial growth.  If storing the fish in a refrigerator, wrap it and place it in a large bowl.  Now place a waterproof bag of ice on top of the fish to keep it ice cold.


If you decide to keep fish that you've caught yourself, the quality should be better then anything you get at your local grocery store or fish market.  So whenever I hear people say things like, "that fish was mushy", or "it didn't taste very fresh", I really have to raise an eyebrow.  If you want your fish to be fresh, you need to think like a commercial fisherman.  Ever see a commercial fishing boat dragging fish around on a stringer, or leaving fish out on the deck to bake in the sun?  Of course not, because the fish they catch have to be delivered to port, and then trucked to market.  Even if you buy freshly delivered fish at a market, it probably was caught three to four days earlier.  Fish you catch yourself is straight out of the water, so there is no excuse for mushy or smelly fish!