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Keeping Freshly Caught Fish, Fresh for The Table

Eating freshly caught fish is one of the joys of fishing. But too often by the time it gets home, the fish are anything but fresh.

Shame, because there is nothing like a feed of fresh fish

One of my most enduring fishing memories is from my too faraway youth, spent at Pines Beach. In those days Pines Beach was around 5 km.from Kaiapoi, which was about 30 miles from Christchurch, South Island, NZ. (Nowadays Kaiapoi is virtually a suburb.)

My father, his mate, and I used to regularly drag a net for flounder near the mouth of the Waimakariri river. To indicate just how long ago it was, it was at a time when I thought it was big and brave to be on the deep end of a dragnet on a cold Christchurch morning.

At least I have learned a few things with advancing years. Being on the deep end is a fate to be avoided, is amongst them.

When the flounder, and the point of this story, hit the fry pan, the fish were so fresh, they were still twitching. The taste was indescribable.

Now given that childhood memories, the good ones anyway, grow with the years of telling, the taste sensation of truly fresh fish, is still with me.

But too often I see so called "fresh" fish served up, that is anything but fresh.

Unfortunately the perpetrators of this travesty are the very people who should be enjoying the taste of truly fresh fish - recreational fishermen.

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Recognize this scenario? The team takes off at 5am, by 6am they are on the spot, and with the change of light some good snapper come aboard. Into the fish bin goes the fish. There is a long gap to the next fish, so a move is made.

By now the sun is well and truly up. A few more fish hit the bin as the day progresses, but by 3pm they pack it in. By 4pm the boat is cleaned out, and the filleting commences.

Filleting takes a while. The fish are slippery, slime covered. The flesh is soft, hard to manage. The guts is starting to honk more than a tad. By six o'clock that night the fish fillets hit the fry pan, and fish cooking smells pervade the whole house. Everyone makes polite noises about the joys of fresh fish - but fresh fish? No!

In these circumstances the fish is better bought from the fish shop, it is in better condition.

Same basic story as above but a different group.

They start fishing at six, but as the fish come in, they are quickly spiked through the brain. The fish go in the bin, but this time the bin is filled with ice. During the breaks in the action, the fish in the bin are gilled and gutted, and then back in the ice.

When the team get home, filleting is a breeze. The flesh is chilled to just above freezing and has a consistency somewhat like balsa wood or polystyrene. The flesh is firm, and easy to trim close to the bone. In the pan the fish has a pleasant appetite-building aroma. On a plate it tastes good enough for the Gods.

The first group made just about every mistake there is in the book.

Leaving fish to die by asphyxiation, stresses the fish, this leaves a taint in the meat. In it's death throes, the fish thrashes and bashes, the flesh becomes bruised. In the absence of cool water, the fish heats up rapidly, as it's cooling system over loads.

The bacteria in the fishes' flesh, gills, gullet and stomach, multiply rapidly. Out of the cool water, the warm temperatures allow them to multiply at a fantastic rate.

I cannot remember my source, but I read somewhere that fish just out of the water, left in the sun, decays at a rate some 5 times faster, than a land animal in similar circumstances.

Leaving fish in a fish bin for some hours without cooling is a cardinal sin. As you add more fish to the bin, the accumulative effect of the heat build up increases, as each fish is added.

The fish at the bottom literally begin to cook.

If you have no ice, at least cover the spiked fish with a damp sack or towel, the thicker the better. As the sun heats up the cloth, the water in the cloth begins to evaporate, and you have set-up a fairly efficient heat exchange unit.

But this only works if the wet sack covered bin is in the sun!

Covering the bin and then placing it in the shade, builds a pretty efficient oven. The wet sack actually holds the heat built up in the bin!

The wet sack heat-exchanger is only a stop-gap.

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There is no substitute for ice and heaps of it.

If you half fill the bin with ice, each fish can be covered as it comes aboard. In the gaps between fish, take out the gills and gut, and pack the cavities with ice. Iced down fish is far easier to fillet. Slime levels are greatly decreased and the fish are far easier to handle. The iced flesh is firmer and easier to slice. It is far easier to fillet close to the bones, so less fish is wasted.

Another problem, with filleting 'warm' fish is the filleting process itself spreads the bacteria though the flesh.

The crap and corruption on your knife and hands spreads the bugs and beasties like wild fire. This is especially bad if you plan to freeze some fish.

It is no wonder so many people complain about the smell of fish preparation, when fish have not been kept properly. Badly kept fish, by the time it is being prepared, honks. As well it might, it is in advanced stages of decomposition. The difference in smell between fresh well kept fish, and badly kept fish is marked.

Fresh well-kept fish has little odour, and what there is, is a clean, fresh smell. The other smell is plain awful.

Careful preparation of fish to be frozen is critical, right from the moment it is caught. The more ice you use in the fish bin the better the fish will be when you finally cook it.

This raises the subject of freezing fish, which should be an article in itself. But here are a few tips.

I have a sheet of 1 cm thick cast iron that I keep frozen. When I want to freeze fish I place the fillets soaked in salted water on the iron in the freezer. In just a few moments the fish is sealed in a glaze of ice.

The fish can then be bagged and placed in the freezer.

In fact I no longer bag fish for freezing. The method I use is to pre-freeze the fish on the iron as described above. I then cover the fish in pre-chilled salted water in milk cartons, and then freeze. The result is the best frozen fish I have tasted.

Eating freshly caught fish is one of the joys of fishing. But too often by the time it gets home, the fish are anything but fresh. An essential part of every fishing trip should be to load up the fish bin with heaps of ice. Only then can you guarantee that the fresh fish is just that, fresh.


fish illustration by Bish


Article written by Tony Bishop


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