All fish have delicate flesh that begins to deteriorate before the fish dies, if it’s roughly handled or excessively stressed. Keeping fish lively as long as possible in a good livewell or in a keep sack before cleaning them is one step to fine-tasting fish. Stringers stress fish more than other methods, unless the water’s cold. When the water’s warm, it’s usually best to dispatch fish immediately and surround them with ice.
Once fish is caught and is out of water, fish flesh deteriorates quickly if the fish isn’t handled correctly. After on-boarding fish, gut them immediately when possible to do so. Don’t let sour, bacteria-filled stomach and intestinal juices touch the flesh for long.
Gutting fish also bleeds them: blood left in flesh speeds deterioration.
Wash gutted fish in cold water to remove bacteria, then surround the fish with crushed ice to retard any bacterial growth.
In the field, icing fish is the best way to keep them fresh once they’ve been killed and gutted or filleted. Crushed ice works best because it packs more closely, cools more quickly, and keeps fish colder than would blocks of ice or frozen bottles of water. So, after gutting the fish, rinse them in cold water and surround them with crushed ice. Don’t let fish soak for long—even in icy water.
Use the same strategy with fish at the cleaning table. Unless they’re fresh and lively from a livewell, the fish should already be iced. Once a fish is cleaned, immediately immerse it in iced water. Once it’s chilled, give it a quick rinse, pat it dry with a towel, wrap it with cling wrap, and surround it with crushed ice. Crushed ice keeps fish for at least five days, although the table quality of the flesh deteriorates slightly each day.
This is another method for keeping fish in the field. Super-chilled fish that have been gutted and left in the round can be kept on ice for five days and often longer. Properly stored fillets can be kept for up to five days, although, as we’ve said, it’s best not to fillet fish until you have to.
To super-chill, line the bottom of an insulated cooler with several inches of crushed ice, leaving the drain open. In another container, mix coarse ice cream salt and crushed ice at a ratio of 1 to 20. For average-sized coolers, that’s one pound of salt to 20 pounds of ice.
Packaging for the Refrigerator
The temperature of most refrigerators is set at about 40°F. The best way to keep fish in a refrigerator is to turn the thermostat down to almost freezing, but that isn’t good for other things in the refrigerator, which may actually freeze.
Another option is to surround the fish with crushed ice. Partially fill a bowl with the ice, wrap the fish tightly in cling wrap, surround and cover them with ice, then cover the bowl with cling wrap, as well. Drain the melt water frequently so the fish doesn’t soak in water. Proper icing lowers the storage temperature to about 34°F, which allows additional days of storage.
If you don’t have crushed ice, pat the fish dry with paper towels. Moisten a clean dishtowel and line the bottom of a bowl with it. Spread the fillets on top and cover the bowl with cling wrap. This keeps fillets reasonably cold and moist but not sloppy wet. With this method, fish keep for about 5 days in the round and 3 days filleted. Again, never keep fish in a plastic bag soaking in water and bacteria-prone fish juices.
Fish flesh loses its quality in the freezer through dehydration and oxidation. “Freezer burn” (whitish leather-tough flesh) is an advanced stage of dehydration. Freezer burn results from using the wrong wrap or wrapping improperly. If your wrap doesn’t seal in moisture effectively, fish flesh loses its moisture and turns tough.
Oxidation is a result of poor packaging. Using the wrong wrap or failing to remove air from the package before freezing causes oxygen to combine with polyunsaturated fats and oils in the flesh. These fats turn rancid in the presence of oxygen.
Properly frozen fish keeps well and holds its flavor for months, although the quality deteriorates progressively the longer they’re frozen.