After You Catch a Fish How Do You Take Care of it?

If You are Going to Keep it, Then Take Care of it ;  It is a known fact that after you catch a fish, if you “Take Care” of it you will have better table fare.  I have seen some fishing persons just throw a dead fish in the bottom of the boat, or if a bankie, in the brush without bleeding or gutting it.  And who knows how long it stays there, even in the sun.

Bleed it Out ;  The description above may get you by, if the weather is cool and cooperates, but most fishermen agree that you need to bonk it on the head, (not really kill it as it is best if the heart is still beating when you cut the gills to pump the blood out better).  Many will then thread a stringer of sorts thru the gills then attach it to the boat after cutting the gills for about 10 minutes to allow it to bleed out which at the same time this will keep the fish-box cleaner.   After bleeding it may be best to transfer it to a fish-box or large ice cooler, (preferably with ice in it).  Cold fish = Better eating fish.   If you just put it in a fish-box or cooler right out of the water and bonking it, the fish-box can get a little gross by the end of the day because of the slime and blood.

When bottom fishing for rockfish and halibut, it is best again to cut the gills and let them bleed out, otherwise with this white meated fish, when you get around to clean it a few hours later, there will still be blood in some of the meat.  The blood is what starts to spoil first. These fish fillet a lot better after they have stiffened up a bit as compared to fresh.

Keep It Cool ;  For all the money and time we spend trying to catch fish, it amazes me to see salmon towed alongside of a boat on the Willapa Bay on a warm August/September day in 63+ degree water.  This may be OK for the fish if they were alive, but once you bonk it, the temperature in a container you are holding it in needs to be lower.  The Department of Health really clamps down on restaurants that have their refrigerators operating above 42 degrees.   I see no reason for a fisherman to even consider anything different.

Fish-boxes in the floor of many boats are not any different in that they need be insulated and also have ice if on a nice warm sunny day.  Middle of winter on the Cowlitz, Steelhead fishing could be a different story.

I would think any even partly serious fisherman should go the extra mile to ensure that their catch remains as fresh (cool) as possible.  Details do matter.   And with all the money spent on a boat, fishing gear and time squeezed in to be able to fish, this is just part of the game plan to finalize a hopefully good ending. 

However, even those who only enjoy the sport but don’t eat the fish should consider some method of keeping their catch as fresh as possible if they intend to give them away.  Now of course all the above does not apply if you are a Catch And Release person and have never seen the inside of a fish-box.

Someone said a long time ago that food ruined in a cooler was usually due to it’s sitting in water (possibly thawed ice) with bloody slime, and not really due to it being too warm.  This can be remedied by adding a grating to the inside bottom of your cooler as shown in the photo below.    These plastic grates can salvaged from broken shopping carts and usually can be picked up for the asking at grocery or shopping centers that use these carts for their customers.  You need to be specific and get the plastic ones and not the steel grated ones.  These plastic grates will raise what ever you put inside up about 1/2″.   They can be removed for cleaning.  The ones shown below have 1″ square holes.  The cart used here was not long enough to make one piece for this cooler, so a 2 pieces were fit together.

Major shopping centers may be a problem in finding anyone who wants to accept authority to dispose of something even if it is beyond repair.   The swivel wheels go first and the maintenance men I know cannibalize as much to repair others, but repairing the plastic grated sides and bottom is something they usually do not try. 

But remember that this grating alone is not be a substitute for ice.  And if you keep the lid closed to preserve the cooling quantities of ice after you have had a fish or two in it, you WILL notice a smell.  You may eliminate this by using a Clorox bleach wash of the inside.


Shopping cart grates in the cooler bottom

The old method of keeping it somewhat cool, is using a clean burlap bag with the fish wrapped in it, when kept wet, works better than you may think.  Old timers knew this as when using a flax water bag, the energy to evaporate water is sucked from the thermal energy (heat) of contents of the bag (or your fish in this instance).  Keep the bag wet and it will be significantly cooler than the air around it.  The key here is to keep it exposed to airflow and out of direct sunlight.

Some may complain these burlap bags can becomes smelly after being used a while.  But a few drops of liquid dish soap and rinse it streamside or at home with a hose and hang in sun / open air to dry.

However ice is the better method of all for the average fisherman if you can make provisions to accommodate it.  You will need a cooler large enough to accommodate your anticipated catch, (up to 100+ quart size).  Do not just use a empty cooler on a warm/hot day, but add some ice as depicted below.  

Buying ice can get expensive after a while, but what value do you put on your catch?  You can use either milk jugs or better yet, sturdier 1/2 gallon fruit juice jugs filled with water and frozen.  The thin milk jugs tend to crack as they freeze resulting in water leakage down the road …. not a problem for the fish but they may require constant inspection / replacement.

How Long Will a Iced Cooler Stay Cool Inside ?  I used to use these 1 gallon milk jugs.  My small fish-box is a 58 quart cooler which I found that (2) 1 gallon milk jugs of ice will keep it quite cool for up to 3 days.    After 2 days the ice had thawed to where the jugs are still just under 1/2 thawed.   You can also refill and freeze 16 oz. water bottles.  The good part of this, is that when they thaw, you have cold water to drink.  However I found that these jugs really take up way too much room if I happened to have the opportunity to fill it with salmon.

My main fish box has now graduated up to a 100 quart cooler mounted in the open bow and I have standardized on 1/2 gallon plastic apple or cranberry juice jugs.  These jugs are a size that are a more convenient and 4 of them keep it cool for 2 days before they melt to about 1/2 by then.   After fishing, even if I have had fish in it, I don’t even have remove the cooler from the boat, but just pull the drain plug and wash the cooler out, let it drain out the boat’s bow scuppers, then leave the lid open to dry and air out.    However if you use these type of ice containers, the fish will dry out if you catch one in the morning, so it is suggested that you also use a wet burlap sack to cover the fish with INSIDE the cooler.  This is especially so if you have entered a fishing derby and may have a money fish.  I had a 21# 3 oz. fish at 9:30 AM that shrunk to 20# 11 oz. at weigh in time of 3:30 PM, so this is when I decided to use the wet burlap sack or an old bath towel over the fish would help.

Have you ever dropped the thermometer into a non-iced cooler that has been setting in the sun all day.  Try it sometime, it may amaze you.  To test this myself, I picked a warm (85 degree) July day with NO ice in a 110 quart Igloo cooler.  I had made up a self-contained fish-finder that also had a thermometer sensor in the transducer.  This transducer/thermometer was inserted inside the cooler.    This cooler was left open all night and in the morning the lid was closed and it fastened shut with the cable running outside to the depthfinder viewing screen.   A reading was taken about every 2 hours without reopening the lid.   

The next day, (but it was a cooler day, like 72 degrees) two 1/2 gallon fruit jugs that had frozen water in them was placed in the cooler at the first reading in the morning at 6:30 AM.  There was nothing else in the cooler other than these ice filled jugs. 

The next day I used a 58 quart Coleman cooler again with the two 1/2 gallon fruit jugs of ice.  At the end of the day it was so impressive, that I left things as it ended the day and started the temperature checking again the following day on the same time schedule.  On this third day you can see about noonish the temperature kept on going up beyond second day’s readings.  At the 8:30 PM checking I called it quits and opened the cooler.  All the ice was melted, but the cooler was still somewhat cool.

The chart below is the accumulation of my brief testing.  OK, this may not be scientific as the inside thermometer and the outside were not synchronized and may have been off a tad, but it is an eye opener if you have always thought a cooler was a magic box that kept things cool.

Here is a chart of my experiment
Time of day Amount of ice        58 Quart Outside air temp
6:30 AM (2) 1/2 gallon 57 degrees 57 degrees
7:30 AM  ”     ”      “ 45 60
8:30 AM  ”     ”      “ 39 65
10:30 AM  ”     ”      “ 40 70
12:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 41 75
2:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 42 80
4:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 43 80
6:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 44 75
8:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 42 70
9:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 37 65
Day #2 same old ice, cooler unopened, but not in direct sunlight
6:30 AM (2) 1/2 gallon 37 degrees 60 degrees
8:30 AM  ”     ”      “ 39 67
10:30 AM  ”     ”      “ 39 68
12:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 39 70
2:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 41 75
4:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 41 68
6:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 41 69
8:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 41 64
9:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 40 63
Day #3 same old ice, cooler unopened, but not in direct sunlight
6:30 AM (2) 1/2 gallon 39 degrees 58 degrees
8:30 AM  ”     ”      “ 39 62
10:30 AM  ”     ”      “ 41 71
12:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 43 76
2:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 45 78
4:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 48 82
6:30 PM
8:30 PM
 ”     ”      ”
Ice was melted

Time of day
Amount of ice 110 Quart Outside air temp    No Ice 110 Quart Outside air temp
6:30 AM (2) 1/2 gallon 54 degrees 54 degrees             “ 52 degrees 52 degrees
7:30 AM  ”     ”      “ 45 60      ”    “ 55 60
8:30 AM  ”     ”      “ 39 65      ”    “ 60 65
10:30 AM  ”     ”      “ 43 70      ”    “ 65 70
12:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 47 71      ”    “ 70 85
2:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 49 72      ”    “ 80 85
4:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 47 70      ”    “ 84 85
6:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 47 68      ”    “ 95 75
8:30 PM  ”     ”      “ 45 65      ”    “ 75 64
9:30 PM

For this experiment, initially the coolers were left out in the sunlight.  Later it was left in a open shed out of sunlight but to where the heat would still be about the same as outside.  Also you will notice that (2) 1/2 gallon ice jugs were used on both the 58 and 110 quart coolers.  It is obvious that this would be fine for the smaller cooler, but probably the quantity of ice would need to be increased at least double of that tested for the larger cooler to be as nearer the cooling effect as for the smaller cooler as tested.

One fisherman puts his fish (if they are a good size) in a 30 gallon garbage bag and ties a knot before placing them in the cooler.  When he gets home he has a way of lifting (by the bottom of the bag) the fish out of the cooler.   Also he doesn’t have a cooler to wash out.   Just sponge out the remaining water after removing the ice blocks.    He uses 4 blocks of solid ice and he says there is generally 1/2 to 3/4 ‘s of a piece of block left at the end of the day that goes back into his freezer for another time.

Now for some scientific data.  If you can purchase shaved sea ice from a fish processing plant, it is colder than ordinary ice.   Adding salt (or almost any impurity) to water lowers the freezing point of the mixture (saltwater or brine).  Pure water (H20) freezes at 32 degrees.   A saturated saltwater solution (which means that no more salt can mix with the water, which is about 21% salt) freezes at around -6 degrees.   Ocean salt water is about 3.5 % salt and will freeze at about 28 degrees.

This is why people add salt to melt ice on sidewalks and why adding salt to ice when the ambient temperature is below -6 degrees won’t work to melt ice.   As the surface of the ice in contact with the salt or saltwater melts it becomes saltwater and now has a lower freezing temperature that is below the ambient temperature so it doesn’t freeze (ie melts).   The melting process does use energy (kinetic or moving energy) and will lower the temperature by absorbing heat.  This is part of why you use rock salt with ice in an old time ice cream maker.

So in simple terms, putting salt in ice water lowers the temperature somewhat.

The other reason why people want to use saltwater (brine) is that it is then possible to have a liquid that is lower than 32 degrees.   For instance putting fish in a really cold brine solution will not freeze the surface of the fish keeping a fresher look and, and some believe, will not allow freezer burn.  This really should only be done with whole fish so the saltwater’s absorption is limited into the flesh.

Think about it, most fishermen insist on keeping their bait cold and usually in a ice/salt solution.  If the bait is susceptible to getting warm AND deteriorating or being mushy, what about the fish you caught and intend to eat?

OK, now that you are home after the week-end fishing trip, don’t forget to clean your cooler out and let it air out otherwise next time you open it, you may become gagged.  Leaving the lid just unlatched usually does not give adequate ventilation.  And leaving the lid totally open may not be best either.  Coghlans, (the camping equipment manufacturer) makes a “Cooler Dry” which is a plastic figure eight but with the top and bottom of the part cut off.  This device when installed on the open part of the bottom and the lid is let back down, holds the lid up about 2″.  It works quite well and only sells for about $3.00.

I have also used a bit of Clorox in the empty cooler to deodorize it.  A word of caution, DON’T use more than a few drops as you then need to leave it open to remove that smell.


Here a 18# Chinook hen on the deck

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