When choosing an ice chest, be sure to choose one that's best suited for fishing location — saltwater or freshwater.
You've been on the water all day, catching your limit of fish. Visions of that fresh fish on a platter fill your head — melted butter, under a broiler with some special dill sauce. Or perhaps it's going to be a fish fry for the family. Whatever the style, your mouth is watering.
Then you open the fish box and that fishy smell hits your nose. Ice? Well, you had some earlier in the day. What happened? It looks like the ice melted, but you think to yourself that the fish will be fine. It's only an hour back to the house.
Does this scenario sound familiar? Many anglers lose out on their fresh catch by simply not paying attention to the fish after the catch. There are some anglers who think that the fish should actually smell that fishy at the end of the day.
The truth is that fresh fish really should not smell fishy. Oh, they will smell like a fish up close, but they should never give off a heavy fishy odor. If they do, they have not been handled properly.
Ice chests — they're called ice chests for a reason. They're supposed to have ice in them! They come in a variety of sizes and price ranges, and there is one out there to suit every angler's need. But, they do little good if they have no ice!
Fish that are to be kept for eating need to be cooled down fast and they need to stay cold — even through the cleaning process. After all, this is meat, and meat will spoil in warm temperatures. You wouldn't let a beef steak sit out on the kitchen counter or worse yet in the sun all day before cooking it, would you? Yet there are fishermen who will do just that with the fish they catch.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure the fish box you are using is at least half full of ice. That leaves room for the fish and can still allow for some melting.
Speaking of melting, remember that crushed ice will melt much faster than block ice. Crushed ice, on the other hand will chill the fish much faster than the block ice. Many anglers still buy 50-pound blocks of ice and chip them up with an ice pick as the day goes by and fish are added to the box.
Some anglers use a brine solution for holding their catch. Generally found on older, larger boats, brine boxes allow the crushed ice to be mixed with seawater to make a slush. Additional salt is sometimes added to the brine to help it cool. The principle here is the same as that for an old fashioned ice cream maker. The salt helps melt the ice and actually makes for a colder solution than melted freshwater ice alone.
An aerator attachment for ice chests can help keep a catch alive and fresh.
Most ice chests are made from plastics and composites. Some are made from metal, but even stainless steel has issues in a saltwater environment. Metal is fine in freshwater, but the composites are better for saltwater fishing.
Whatever your choice, make sure it involves lots of ice. If you think you might need more ice, you probably do.
Chilling a fish quickly means keeping the meat fresh and firm. Smaller fish will chill more quickly than large fish. Thick fish, like a grouper will take longer. In some instances it makes sense to gut a thicker fish to allow the ice and cold to get into the fish stomach cavity. Very large fish will spoil more quickly than smaller fish.
Think about it. You catch a 50-pound grouper in 80-degree water. Fish are cold blooded, so the body temperature assumes that of the surrounding water. That 80-degree fish will quickly begin to spoil from the inside out, even as the fish appears to still be moving its gills. The hotter the day, the faster the fish spoils.
Back at the dock, the next order of business is cleaning and filleting your catch. Find some shade — for your own benefit and for the sake of the filets. Get out of the sun!
Whether scaling and gutting or filleting off each side, make sure you get the filets cooled down. At this point the fish needs to be kept cold but not wet. Dropping fish filets into water does them no good. The best flavor will come from filets that are cut and kept as clean as possible without washing them.
Try to filet the fish without opening the stomach cavity. Exposing the filet to all those stomach fluids, including the bile gland, can ruin an otherwise tasty meal. If you do have a filet that needs rinsing, rinse it very quickly in water as cold as you can find. Warm water rinsing actually starts the cooking process as cells break down in the warmth.
These steps may seem rather elementary to a lot of anglers, but they are the most important steps you can take to insure a great meal.
Chill your catch as quickly as you can, and keep them cold all the way through the cleaning process. Do this and see the difference on your plate. You will be pleased!