Keeping your catch fresh

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Michael 'Smudge' Parker
04 August 2016

Taking care of your catch is all about keeping your hard caught bounty in perfect condition for eating. While most articles you’ll read outline how to catch fish, this article aims to deal with how to keep your fish in the best possible condition for eating.

A clean kill

The first and arguably most important part of taking care of your catch is making a clean kill. There is no better way of doing this than with an iki spike, when done correctly the fish will die almost instantly.

Caring for your catch

This didn’t quite find the spot, the iki stick has gone in the right place but needs to be directed a little more toward the fishes jaw

I recommend this technique more out of moral responsibility rather than eating quality, however there is plenty of evidence around that indicates an instant and humane kill results in a better tasting meal.

Handling your catch

Handling fish is not always easy at the best of times and we’re all made to look like amateurs every now and then by a particularly uncooperative fish. A tip that will fix this and settle down most fish is to cover it with a towel, this should also make it less slippery and easier to grip. If the fish is having trouble settling down, simply cover its eyes with the towel and turn it upside down, this generally works well.

caring for your ctch

Rob releases the second biggest snapper he’s ever caught, great work!

With the fish under control you can now easily tuck it under your arm and remove the hooks, before placing it on a firm surface and administering the iki. While there is an iki gun on the market, I use a Berkely iki stick. It has a nice T shaped handle and comes in bright orange, which makes it easy to find when you need it most. The last thing you want is to be searching for the iki during a hot bite.

Some fish can be harder to handle than others and might need a slightly different approach. Albacore and skipjack tuna for example have a powerful and rapid tail beat that can make them very hard to handle, but there is a simple solution. Hold them up by the tail so they point downwards and they’ll suddenly calm down. I keep a short bat on the boat for these fish and a good firm blow to the head should to the job.

caring for your catch

Using a net gives the fish it’s best chance of survival should you wish to release it as we did with this 35cm gurnard. Using a pair of long nose pliers the hooks can be removed with the fish still in the water

Sharks and rays

Of course sharks and rays can become very dangerous,  I try to remove the hooks using a pair of long nose pliers without bringing the fish on the boat. If you are inexperienced at handling sharks and rays I strongly recommend you simply cut your trace, the hooks are unlikely to cause the fish any problems and they will soon rust out. I treat eels the same way.

Sometimes you might want to keep the shark or ray for food, this is where the bat comes back into play. One important thing you should know when handling small sharks, is to how to identify spiny dogfish.

caring for your catch

This 55cm snapper is a great size to keep, you don’t need many to feed a big family so care for it well and get the best out of it.

A spiny dogfish can be identified by its slender shape, grey colouring with two or three lighter blotches, pointed clear coloured nose and nasty spines on its dorsal and adipose fins (the small fin between the caudal fin or tail and the dorsal fin). If you were to grip the shark behind its head, it will wrap around your forearm and sink those spines in deep!

As with sharks, rays also need to be handled with care. Please don’t cut off a rays tail unless you intend to use the fish. It’s also a senseless waste of life to kill them or leave them to die on the beach. While they can be eaten, there are much tastier fish in the sea in my opinion. Let them go.


You may have already heard that certain fish require bleeding or its meat will go bad. This is true of most fast swimming pelagic fish, as they have a good supply of red blood coursing through their veins; kahawai are no exception.

caring for your catch

As the red smudges on the camera indicate, bleeding fish can be messy.

Bleeding is an easy process; simply put a knife right through the gill openings and cut downwards. The heart will be situated directly behind the cut, and the blood will pump out in spectacular fashion. I suggest you place the fish upside down in a bucket as it bleeds out. A quick wash in sea water and it’s ready for the chilly bin. Trevally and kingfish will also benefit from this bleeding process.

Tuna are another fish that benefits from bleeding, the easiest way to do this is while the fish is held suspended by the tail as described earlier. A simple cut just behind each pectoral fin will soon have the fish ready for the bin.

Keep it cool

I often see a good haul of fish caught and killed and then stored nicely in the chilly bin, but with no ice in sight! There isn’t many things you could do that are worse at preserving your catches eating qualities than not correctly chilling your catch.

Caring for your catch

These gurnard and kahawai will be in great condition. Ikied and put straight on ice they look more appetising when treated well and the flesh will be nice and firm which assists with filleting

Ice helps set the flesh, making it much easier to fillet, as well as keeping the bacteria at bay; all resulting in giving the fish a fresh clean taste when served on the plate. Fish put straight on ice will taste better and last longer. If you doubt the keeping qualities of fish stored in ice, think about fish bought from a wet fish retailer. Those fish were probably caught by a trawler that’s likely to have been at sea for several days, add in the handling, freight and time spent in the shop waiting to be sold and you have fish that could easily be over a week old that still tastes good and will last for a further few days in the fridge.

If your recreationally caught catch goes into a bin without any ice, you will end up with a not so good looking fillet and it will only last two or three days in the fridge before it starts to taste and smell less than perfect.

Caring for your catch

This is how your snapper fillets should look if the fish was treated well. Of course you need a very sharp knife too!

There are several options for chilling your catch down, but for me salt flake ice is very hard to beat. What I like about salt flake ice is that it packs nicely against the fish, ensuring a good contact and minimising the time taken for the fish to chill down.

I prefer not to put water in with salt ice as the water is more likely to contaminate the fish as body fluids leak out, fish often cough up smelly old berley or stinky bits of bait when caught. You really want to minimise that stuff coming into contact with your fish. This becomes especially important when you are away for more than a day.

Caring for your catch

Brooke caught this spectacular gurnard in June, if you are going to keep a fish like this you would surely want to keep it in prime condition

Salt ice isn’t always readily available but there’s a few easy alternatives available. One way is fresh water ice with a small amount of saltwater added. I’d only recommend this for day trips to reduce the chance of bacteria’s spawning.

A third and more economical method is to simply fill plastic bottles with water and freeze them. Make sure there’s a good air gap in the bottle as water expands as it freezes. Ice crème containers do the job also. Again add a small about of sea water to the bin, sometimes large blocks of ice can burn the fish.

Caring for your catch

A 90 litre chilly bin and 30kg of ice, that should do it. This was for a winter trip for two days fishing and we kept the first days catch overnight

How much ice do you need? For a day of snapper fishing with three people I take a 90 litre chilly bin. In summer 20kg is about the right amount. I often don’t fillet my catch til the next day when flesh has set nice and firm, making the whole job easier and cleaner.

No ice?

Every now and then you’re not going to have the ability to bring ice with you. This is particularly relevant for adventurous land-based fishermen who often can't carry a chilly bin with them.

If this is the case, there are a few important factors to remember; keep your catch as cool as possible and out of the sun. The best way to do this is by using an insulated chilly bag, some are on the market as catch bags .

If you get lucky and catch big it can be especially hard to carry your catch out, my advice is to factor this in to fishing plans.

Caring for your catch

Caring for your catch goes beyond throwing your catch in a chilly bin. You need some knife skills to prepare the fish but that’s a whole new topic for later...

Smudge's top tips

  • Handle your catch carefully if you intend to release it – keep your hands out of its gills
  • Kill your fish as quickly and humanely as possible if you’re going to keep it
  • Take as much ice as you can
  • Try to stand the fish on their bellies or at least try to keep them as flat as possible
  • Salt ice without water is the best option, especially if you are at sea for more than a day
  • If you have no ice, keep your fish in the shade
  • Allowing the fish to stay in ice overnight will set the flesh making it much easier to fillet
  • Some fish, notably snapper and gurnard taste better after a day or two in the fridge
  • Don’t wash your fish until you are ready to cook it. If it needs to be washed, dry the fish with paper towels, keep it covered and drain off any liquid or better still store it so any liquid drains away.

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