Few things can stink up an ice chest—or an entire house—like spoiled fish. To dodge that gagging stench and enjoy your catch all the way to the table, take better care of those fish from the moment they’re landed.
On boats, dedicate a large, insulated chest—at least half-filled with ice to start and an extra bag or two stored elsewhere—to the day’s effort. As fish come aboard, dispatch them with a sharp blow to the head before dropping them into the cooler. Don’t go squeamish and skip this step; flipping and flopping bruises the flesh and affects taste.
Time and fisheries laws permitting, remove gills, innards and visible blood lines as quickly as possible during the day. Doing so helps to cool the inside of the fish more quickly and reduces the chance of bacteria being introduced to the flesh.
Award-winning chef Bryan Caswell, from Houston’s well-known Reef restaurant, recommends taking onboard fish storage a step further. He stacks his caught fish gutted and with backs up in a natural swimming position. That allows any remaining blood to drain downward toward thinner belly flesh and away from the plump, desirable meat of the fillet.
For waders and walkers, it’s best to keep fish alive until they can be properly cleaned and cooled. Stringers (poked through the thin flesh at the chin and not through the gills) are routinely used by waders to maintain caught fish. Be sure the fish are suspended in a natural position and not rolling “upside down” because of improper stringing technique.
In shallow water, where temperatures can punch above 90 degrees during summer months, strung fish won’t last long no matter how they hang. Work the bite for its full worth, but retreat to ice quickly once your catch has gone belly-up.
Floating baskets work better than stringers by allowing caught fish to swim freely within the cage’s confines. They’re great for “average” bay fish, such as trout and keeper reds, but may fall short if something really big comes to hand.
From shore or on a jetty, consider an over-the-shoulder, insulated fish bag. Models are available that will hold a fair amount of ice and fish to 30- plus inches. As an alternative to loose ice, consider packing that pouch with several re-freezable containers or resealable plastic bags filled with water and laid flat atop each other during the freezing process. Place caught fish into the bag quickly, opening it only enough to accommodate the catch’s girth, then reseal that bag. The container may get a little slimy and bloody in that haste, but better to spend a little extra time washing the bag after a successful trip than to lose half your catch to spoilage.
Few things taste better in a pool of melted butter or beneath a pile of crabmeat than sweet, fresh fish. The reward for proper handling is worth every bit of the effort it requires.
Freshness at a Glance
Ask these questions if you're unsure whether your fish is still as fresh as it could be:
- Are the eyes clear?
- Is the fish excessively slimy?
- Is the flesh firm?
- Does it smell "fishy?"
If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, you might want to select another main course.