Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
Caring for Your Catch
Keep Your Fish Tasting Good All Winter Long
Alaskans enjoy healthy salmon stocks that provide opportunities to harvest a year-round supply of fish during personal use and subsistence fisheries in much of the state. This opportunity can mean harvesting a lot of fish in a short period of time. This may seem daunting at the outset, but caring for your catch is not difficult. It does take adequate preparation and proper handling to keep your catch edible until you can go harvest again.
If you only like salmon from your freezer that has some elaborate sauce to cover the fish taste – then it’s time to improve your fish handling. Many people who “don’t like fish because it tastes fishy” WILL like salmon that’s properly cared for, with no more enhancement than salt and pepper on the grill.
My bible of fish handling is “Care and Handling of Salmon: The Key to Quality” by John Doyle. Best of all, it’s free from the Alaska Sea Grant bookstore in either hardcopy or PDF. As a rookie direct marketer in 1998, it was my source for best handling practices of quality fish on my salmon troller. Another good source of handling practices is from the UAF Extension Service.
The most important period for fish quality is the first 20 minutes after the catch. You can only keep a fish in good condition. You can’t make bad quality fish good. Bacteria and poor handling are your enemies. Bacteria reproduce exponentially. Retarding bacterial growth is key to good fish. You don’t need to be a microbiologist to make good salmon. You just need to remember the golden rule: keep it clean, keep it cold, and keep it moving.
KEEP IT CLEAN
The keeping it clean part means to keep your fish deck clean, keep your fish clean, and keep your cooler clean. Remember. Bacteria is your enemy. You want to start with a sanitary environment to keep your fish in until you get them processed and frozen, canned, or eaten fresh. Sanitizing surfaces is a simple addition to normal surface cleaning to help retard bacteria growth. And a sanitizing solution is simple to make with bleach and water. A light solution of 10 parts per million to 50 parts per million is what Doyle recommends. This translates to about a ½ ounce (say, a capful) of bleach to a quart of water in a spray bottle. After you clean your cooler (or whatever you are holding your fish in as you catch them – such as a tote, garbage can, fish hold, etc.), spray the surface with the sanitizing solution and don’t rinse it off. The bleach solution will kill any bacteria on the surface but is not strong enough to taint your fish.
Handling fish as it comes out of the water is the second part of keeping it clean – and by keeping it clean here, I mean by keeping the unexposed flesh free of bruising. It turns my stomach to see people beating a fish with a club numerous times until all movement stops. With practice, a single bonk on the top of the head will stun the fish. By only stunning the fish, its heart will continue to beat and push more blood out of the fish during bleeding – described in the next paragraph - making for better tasting fish. Clubbing a fish numerous times is the act of a blood thirsty greenhorn worried more about “getting his limit” than about maintaining fish quality and respecting the fish. Wildly swinging to catch up to a flopping fish and beating it several times will cause bruising, soft and gaping flesh, resulting in a poor food product and waste of resource. In addition – never handle fish by the tail, since it can bruise the flesh along the backbone. Pick salmon up by the head using the handy gill pocket.
Next is bleeding. Bleeding is one of the simplest ways to improve salmon quality and take away that “fishy taste” from frozen fish by further reducing bacterial spoilage. As soon as the fish is stunned, break a gill with your finger, and place the fish in water to promote bleeding. Bleeding in water can remove twice as much as bleeding the fish in air. This may mean putting the fish in a bucket of water on the boat, and regularly changing the water as necessary to keep the water clean and cool. Or hang the fish from a stringer in the water if you are down the side of a steep bank on the Copper River or it’s feasible to do from your boat.
Fish can also be bled further with a method called “pressure-bleeding”, which is used by some commercial fishermen to produce the highest quality product. It’s usually a system made from simple components bought at the hardware store, but it’s rather a hard technique to accurately describe without seeing it in action. So, search for “pressure bleeding salmon Alaska” on the internet, and you’ll see how it’s done. Note that it’s important to run the water through the fish with this technique under low pressure only, since too high a pressure can damage the flesh.
Fish can sit on ice for several hours and still be pressure-bled. I bleed fish by breaking a gill at the time of capture and later pressure-bleed fish when I am at a cleaning station and ready to dress (i.e., remove the head and innards) the fish. This additional bleeding helps eliminate the “fishy” taste fish can acquire in the freezer and only takes about a minute for each fish. You’ll really notice the difference eating salmon out of your freezer the following spring.
KEEP IT COLD
After the fish have been initially bled by breaking a gill, keeping fish cool is the next priority. Sockeye runs are during the summer, and summer temperatures can be in the 60’s and higher – which promotes the rapid bacteria growth that leads to flesh decomposition and poor quality.
The fish should be cooled as rapidly as possible – preferably with ice. I recommend ice with just enough water that the fish will sink down into it with a gentle push. Commercial fishermen call this “slush ice.” The idea is to get the fish into near freezing surroundings right after initial bleeding to retard bacteria growth. Slush ice will cool your fish more rapidly than just ice in the few hours you’ll be out fishing until you get to dressing them. Cocktail ice in the bag from the gas stations works fine. In some towns you might be able to buy shaved ice from a fish processor, which is even better. Just get the fish cool as soon as possible. I recommend initial bleeding in water before placing the fish in ice to keep the ice as clean as possible.
Unless you are harvesting feeding fish in the ocean, I don’t recommend dressing fish until you are at a cleaning station where you have access to a clean platform and a hose or faucet with clean water. Most sockeye salmon harvested in rivers will not have any food in their gut, so bacterial decomposition from inside the fish should be minimal if the fish is kept cool. Trying to clean fish on board a boat or on the beach and keeping it clean can be next to impossible. Just bleed it, get is as clean as possible with a final swoosh in the water or spray from your boat wash down hose, and put it into the cooler of ice. Worry about dressing the fish later when you can get to a clean, less hectic, and more sanitary environment. If you have to transport your fish for some distance before you can clean them, you may want to drain off water from the ice and top up the ice in the cooler.
After you clean your fish, don’t use slush ice because the water in the ice will promote bacterial growth in the exposed fish flesh. Use only new, clean ice for dressed fish.
If your fish are going into the freezer, I recommend vacuum packaging your fish. Done properly, vacuum packing can retard freezer burn – another enemy of fish quality – for a year or more. If you don’t have a vacuum packing machine, you can rent a vacuum packer in some areas, or pay a fish processor to do this for you. If vacuum packaging is not an option, you can wrap the fish first in plastic wrap, and then freezer paper, but you should eat the fish sooner than you would if vacuum packed because this method is less effective against freezer burn.
When you place your fish in the freezer, don’t pile unfrozen fish on top of each other, as the fish in the middle will slowly freeze and the resulting large ice crystals that form can cause damage to the flesh. Make some sort of temporary rack system to separate layers of fish so they freeze quickly. Once frozen, the rack can be removed. And put the freezer on its coldest temperature. The colder the temperature of your freezer, the longer the quality of fish will be maintained.
Seem like a lot of extra work? It’s not really. Especially when you consider you are doing a few days of work of a year-long supply. Making good salmon is more work than making good venison. Meat tends to keep a lot better than fish – especially fatty fish like salmon. Deer, moose or caribou that are dressed in the field, dragged to a transport vessel or camp, and hung for a few days in cool temperatures can produce top-quality meat. The same is not true with salmon. There is much less time to dally. Keep it clean, keep it cold and keep it moving, all the way to the freezer. Be prepared for success before you catch your first fish, and then be prepared to process quality salmon to last all year long.
Mark Stopha is a former salmon troller and direct marketer. He’s currently a fishery biologist for ADF&G in Juneau. Feel free to contact me at Mark.Stopha@alaska.gov for tips on fish handling.
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