Handling Your Catch for the Table

The Way You Treat Your Fish Matters

Teamwork of a water and son on fishing.
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For many of us who catch our own fish, the pleasure of reeling them in is only exceeded by that of serving them to our friends and family. After all, the allure of a fried fish that was swimming around just hours before is a strong one.

But mishandling your fish can result in such a loss of eating quality that you'd be better off buying them. Here's how to land and handle your catch to ensure that the fish you catch are the finest you will ever eat:

  • Land them fast. It may be fun to play a fish on the line for minutes or even hours, but that fish will be far poorer table fare than one landed quickly. Reel the fish in quickly, and use the proper line for the fish you expect to catch: If you expect to catch 10-pound fish, you should use a 10-pound line.
  • Knock them on the head. You should stun your fish when you get them aboard. Use a miniature baseball bat or a stout wooden dowel to whack them on the head. This prevents the fish from beating themselves up in your cooler, which can damage the meat.
  • Bleed them. This is controversial because you are essentially bleeding out a live fish, which is no fun for the fish. I rarely do it, unless I am catching sharks, bluefish or tuna -- all of which are either very large and need cooling ASAP, or which run hot internally. And you need to cool fish down quickly for the best eating quality. If you choose to do it, cut about an inch back from the tail up until you feel bone.
  • Get them on ice right away. Even on cold days, it is important to ice your catch. Fish can spoil even at temperatures that we humans find cold. Bring a large cooler with lots of ice, and place your fish in right-side up (as if they were swimming) as soon as they are stunned or bled. Make sure your cooler has a spigot so you can drain the meltwater -- you do not want the fish to rest in water.
    • If you cannot bring ice, keep the fish in the shade, on a stringer in the water, bury it in the sand (mark the spot!), or try this: Bleed and gut the fish right away, then salt it all over. Wrap the fish in fresh green leaves or seaweed and put it in the coolest place you can find.