Handling Your Catch
The difference between good fish and great fish is almost always in the handling. However, most recreational fishermen do not take enough care with their catch. A fish loses some of its essential flavour and texture as the process of decomposition commences. The key to the whole system is to stop, or at least slow down the process of decomposition, and the only way to do that is with ice, and lots of it.
Alternatives such as keeper nets and wet sugar bags only work for a short time, but fish kept in keeper nets are subject to extreme stress and several hours of this will actually change the acid balance in the flesh, thus changing the taste. Sugar bags can also house huge amounts of bacteria if not cleaned regularly. The bacteria can contribute to the deterioration of the fish. So wash the bag thoroughly after you finish cleaning the fish.
Ice is always the best answer, so if you want to be serious about looking after your catch, then you need a storage system which can cope with your regular catch. This brings us to the problems anglers have to contend with their fish storage. The first is the actual storage system and the second is the amount of ice needed.
Boats have limited space and the smaller the boat, the more limited the space. The best solution seems to be custom made seats, insulated in such a way that they form a big ice box. A 50 litre esky is plenty for most situations. If you have the room for a permanent or semi-permanent ice box, the Bailey range from Queensland have hard exterior boxes which are exceptional fish keepers, in sizes to suit any boat. I have a 200 litre Bailey Box named Big Bertha, and have used it on numerous occasions to store fish, food and drinks - great as a portable fridge, but damn heavy with all the ice it takes !!
The price of commercial ice is expensive particularly if you buy it in small bags. By hunting around you can often find sources of bulk ice which is relatively cheap. Most of the fish markets or co-ops often supply bulk ice, some for as little as $3 for 30 kg. Bulk bags are also available from some service stations. You can also make ice very cheaply in your household freezer, simply by buying some heavy duty plastic containers and making up a heap of medium sized blocks. Storage space at home is usually the problem with this system.
As an alternative, if you have a tucker box freezer, save all your empty milk cartons, and three weeks before you go fishing, start freezing water in the cartons. On a 5 day fishing trip, you could easily save yourself $60 on crushed and blocked ice. Luckily, I have an old 200 litre Tucker Box freezer which I scored for $100. The amount of ice that this freezer can make and store is ample for all my fishing ventures.
Once you have worked out a satisfactory way of keeping your fish in top condition, their handling, cleaning and presentation should be considered. There is a lot more to seafood preparation than is commonly perceived. Always kill the fish as soon as possible so it does not kick and thrash around, bruising itself in the process. This applies to fish of all sizes. Remember a fish's body is built for a fluid environment and the flesh is easily damaged. The best and most humane way to kill any fish is to drop it into an ice slurry made up of ice and seawater. Being cold blooded, this just puts the fish to sleep, but the rapid drop in temperature also kills them quickly. On larger fish, a quick knock on the head with a heavy object will usually render them non compos mentis.
Large fish can also be bled by inserting a knife blade into the breast plate just behind the junction of the body and gills. This will confine blood flow and stop it spraying around the boat. Once the puncture is made drop the fish into the ice box.
With your fish nicely iced, you can pick and choose when you clean them. It is a job best done on land, as a rocking boat, slippery fish and a sharp knife can add up to trouble. To clean fish properly, you need a sharp knife and also a sufficient range of blades to handle the variety of fish you catch. Most bluewater anglers will need at least two cleaning knives while estuary, beach and rock anglers can get by with one. The best choice of knives is a medium weight, 15 to 18 cm bladed knife. Bluewater anglers should add a heavy boning knife for fish over 10 kg.
Choose where you clean your fish carefully. Make sure the water you wash your fish in and the table you prepare them on is clean. In many spots, especially around sea-side caravan parks, it is necessary to clean the table before you clean the fish. Despite opinions to the contrary, running freshwater is probably the best help you can get when cleaning your catch. It is pure and clean, and you can usually get some extra water pressure to remove blood and body slime.
Check your cleaning knives too. If you've been chopping bait and berley with them all day, it's quite possible that some putrid material may still be on the blades. So clean them thoroughly before cleaning your catch.
When gutting fish, ensure that the stomach contents are washed away as quickly as possible. This is particularly important if you have been using berley that was already on the nose, before you started fishing. Fish caught on chicken gut also seem to go off quickly.
When cleaning the fish, you have two basic methods to choose from. One is to produce whole fish and the other fillets, or cutlets. An important part of cooking fish is in the presentation of the finished product and thought should be given to this when you clean your catch.
Personally, I like to leave fish whole with head and tail intact if cleaning Snapper, Mulloway and Salmon, where as I fillet Garfish, KG Whiting and Tommies. I've seen people gut the fish and chop off the head and tail, leaving just a solid torso of fish meat. While it would obviously taste the same, its appearance when served is just not as appealing. If the fish is to be frozen, leave the scales on, as a form of protection against freezer burn. This also appears to stop a lot of body fluids escaping from the flesh during the freezing process.
The scales can be removed before cooking, or left on, and removed in one piece, with the skin, before you eat the meat. If eating the fish fresh, scale it as you clean it. If you have limited kitchen facilities or just don't like scales on the fish, then get rid of them at the start.
Fillets of fish should be cut from head to tail, keeping as close as possible to the spine. The reason for going this way is so the cut goes with the grain and muscle structure of the fish. Good filleting takes practice and concentration. The fillet can also be skinned and boned. Skinning is done by placing the knife under the flesh at the tail end and then running along the fillet while keeping a firm grip on the end of the skin. Bone out the rib cage if required. I use a set of long-nosed pliers to ease/pull the bones out of the meat. These pliers do NOT go into the shed, but are primarily kept in our pantry for future use.
When planning to eat fish fresh, for example, on the same day you caught it, make sure that rigormortis has left the body. Rigormortis happens in all animals and is part of the process of death. It takes from 4 to 24 hours to leave the body of most fish. To check for rigormortis, check that the fish's body is flexible before preparing it for the table. If the fish is stiff, its flesh will reflect this when cooked. Allowing the fish to sit in the fridge for a day with a plastic covering will not hurt it and will ensure it is free of rigormortis.
Nearly all fish are good eating, some are exceptional. Given the fact that quality fish like Mulloway, Snapper, Mackerel, Bream and others will set you back more than the price of rump steak, you should handle your catch accordingly.
Even fish that are not rated highly can have their eating quality enhanced by good handling technique. If you leave the fish in the sun for an hour or two then it will only be good for the cat.
So the message is, carry ice and look after the fish and you'll enjoy the eating as much as the fun of catching.
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