Tips for cleaning and preparing your catch

A bad experience with improperly prepared fish can turn a person
off to one of the finest culinary experiences available.

Some folks don’t mind if their fish tastes a bit “fishy.” That
fishy taste, however, comes from bacteria that start to form after
your catch dies.

I’m not a big fan of strong-tasting fish, and most people who
don’t like fish gained that opinion from a meal that was made from
fish that just wasn’t as fresh as it should have been. This
unfortunate situation can be easily remedied with a little bit of
effort. A quality fish dinner starts with quality fish.

As most anglers will attest, the best fish is fresh fish. A
shore lunch of fish that have just been pulled from the water is
nearly impossible to beat. Most of the time, however, the cleaning
and cooking is done quite some time after the actual catching. This
is the time when many fishermen ruin an otherwise good meal.

Whenever possible, keep your fish alive until just before you
intend to clean them. If you’re fishing from a boat equipped with a
livewell, this task is easy. A livewell needs to be used properly
to do its job, however. Don’t just “fill it and forget it.” Make
sure adequate fresh water is circulating to provide enough oxygen
to keep the fish alive. A livewell timer is a handy tool to
maintain good water quality while letting you focus on fishing.
During the hot summer months, adding some ice to the livewell will
help keep your catch fresh longer.

Not everyone has the luxury of a livewell. In this case you’re
left with a couple options. Many fishermen still rely on the trusty
stringer to hold the catch of the day. This option works best when
the fish are kept for a relatively short period of time and in cool
water. Every minute your catch hangs dead in warm lake water is
going to decrease the table quality.

Fish baskets are another option, particularly for panfish. As
with stringers, these work best early or late in the season when
the water is cool. In the summer months, your best bet to keep
things fresh is to put your fish in a cooler full of ice
immediately after catching them.

Now that you have your catch home and fresh, what’s the best way
to clean them?

Trout and small salmon can be gutted and left whole. Larger
salmon can be filleted or cut into steaks. If you plan on smoking
your catch, it’s best to leave the skin intact. Panfish can be
gutted and scaled. This tends to be a bit messy, but some anglers
like to leave smaller fish whole (minus the head, of course).

In most cases, filleting your catch will provide the best end
product. A sharp knife is essential to a good fillet job. The knife
should have a fairly flexible blade as well. An electric knife can
be a great asset. With a little practice, your cleaning time can be
cut in half. Even smaller panfish can be effectively cleaned with a
good electric knife.

The filleting procedure is fairly simple. Make a cut
perpendicular to the body behind the head and cut through the rib
cage along the backbone down to the tail. Remove the side and
repeat on the opposite flank. After the fillet has been removed,
slice out the rib cage.

Next, lay the fillet with the skin side down, and with a firm
grip on the tail, remove the skin with a sliding motion of the
knife, keeping the blade at about a 20-degree angle to the cutting
board. This will leave you with an almost bone-free piece.

For panfish fillets, leave them in ice water in the refrigerator
for several hours to firm up the meat before freezing. Some larger
species of fish have a dark band of flesh along the center of the
fillet often referred to as a “mud line” or “mud vein.” This is
actually red muscle tissue and tends to have a strong taste.
Removing this strip may help preserve a more delicate flavor.

Freezing fish is another step that when done right will ensure a
good meal, but when done wrong will result in ruined meat. After
rinsing fillets, pat them dry with a paper towel and pack them
tightly in freezer bags, removing all the air in the bag before
sealing. Vacuum sealers are a great option to ensure protecting
your catch. Be sure to label the bag with the date and type of
fish.

Cooking your catch doesn’t have to be a chore either. Here are a
couple great ways to make a quick, easy meal.

Oven-baked fish

Melt three tablespoons of butter in a small bowl. Dip the
fillets in butter and roll them in Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs.
Place them on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 15-20
minutes at 350 degrees until the fish flakes. This is a great, fast
alternative to fried fish.

Pike burgers

Northern pike have epiplural or “Y” bones that are not removed
with standard filleting methods. Rather than filleting them out and
wasting some meat trying to remove the bones, you may want to try
this technique: Run the fillets twice through a meat grinder on a
coarse setting. Add one egg and a cup of seasoned breadcrumbs to
the ground fish. Form into patties, dust with corn meal and fry in
a half-inch of oil about three minutes on each side. These make
great fish sandwiches.

Take a little time to care for and prepare your fish and you’ll
enjoy the end results much more.

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