Whole Fish

Gulf Seafood + Southern Food


Ice ‘Em Swimming

The first hour after a fish is harvested is by far the most crucial time in its stored life. Proper procedure and care immediately after a fish is harvested can add three to six full days of shelf-life (depending on the varietal). As a fish cook and a fisherman, my processing etiquette on the boat can be flat-out obsessive but, if you follow these steps, you can enjoy your fresh-caught fish for well over a week and skip the sacrilege of sending them to the freezer.


Horsing a fish will usually result in two things: one, he will break off, causing that heartbreaking, hollow numbness that instantly washes over your body after your line goes flaccid, leaving you with either excuses or rage; or two, he will tear up both the boat and his muscle fibers once inside the boat. Those torn muscle fibers result in blown blood vessels and soft or mushy protein. Take your time, enjoy, wear him out, there are no points for speed.


Now is the time when speed and points come into play. If the fish is big enough to gaff, get him in the boat, pop him once, hard, right behind the eyes (gaff placement is key) -- be swift and kind -- then get him covered in ice, completely. If he is not gaff-size, then just put him straight into the ice. There are certain species that benefit greatly from bleeding; most of these fall into the large, faster-moving Pelagic-type fish, especially tuna which have the ability to control there own body temperature. During feeding frenzies their internal body temperature can rise to 85-90 degrees; bleeding greatly improves your ability to quickly lower their internal temperature (wahoo, sharks and large jacks do not share this ability but can still benefit from this technique).


You can never bring enough ice. All too often, I will look into a fish-filled cooler with nothing but water and two cubes of ice. You need to cover those babies like they’re wrapped in a wool blanket in the wintertime. I always start the day with one of my coolers filled with clean ice and the others half full. If time or space is an issue, check out those new Yeti’s - it’s a new breed of cooler whose insulation is far superior to any others. I use them both on the boat and in the kitchen. Saltwater slurries, which can reach temperatures well below freezing, are also an option for a quick chill.


Always roll with the cooler plug open. Standing water is your biggest enemy when it comes to proliferation of bacteria. Nothing could be worse than your fish sitting in water.


Depending on the size of the fish, they need at least 3-6 hours on ice. Fish that have not had the opportunity to complete the cooling process and reach - and complete - full rigor will greatly affect ease of processing on the cleaning table and reduce your yield percentage. In many cases, with the muscle fibers still active, the meat of the filet will seize up, shrink and become extremely tough and spongy when cooked.


Here is where you have to make a very important decision: (1) Do you clean the fish at that dock table on top of the water-swollen, green plywood table-top in the hot, bright, afternoon sun? Or (2) Can you take them home to a controlled, clean, sanitized environment? If the answer is (2) then you first need to gut the fish and wash out the stomach cavity before heading home. If you do have to clean them at the dock, make sure you bring a large plastic cutting board and at least one large stainless sheet pan from a restaurant supply store. Also don’t be afraid to bring your own sanitizing solution (1 cap of bleach per gallon of water). As you separate the first filet from the bone, place it skin side down on the sheet pan; then place the second one flesh to flesh. After you complete the fish in this way, sanitize the board and then begin to take the skin off of each filet. The skin and scales are like a protective coating keeping bacteria from the flesh and, in turn, harbor most of these undesirables. Do whatever you can to keep the two from touching.


Stack the fish head to tail like they are swimming in the ice. Do this one layer after another. Fish that have been cared for using the tips above and then iced correctly can last up to 1 ½ weeks and sometimes longer.

Ice 'Em Swimming


mer said...

This is such vital information for anyone dealing with fish. It's always heartbreaking to come across improperly stored fish, all just chucked into a bin and covered in ice with seemingly little concern.

A question, though, for step five "Time on Ice" is this 3-6 hours from the time the fish is caught before you should attempt any fabrication/cleaning, etc.? I thought that eviscerating the fish was an important and almost immediate step.

Whole Fish said...


After re-reading I can see how I wasn't as clear as I could have been, I was speaking more to the filleting process on #5. Ideally it is best to catch and eviscerate immediately and you don't have to wait the 3-6 hours to complete that step. Within these steps I've kinda taken into account a few factors, it is kind of a choose your battle type situation.
1- When the bite is on i've never met the fisherman; recreational or commercial that will be able to stop and eviscerate the fish much less remember to breathe, between the catch.
2- I believe a lot has to do with your setup and ability with a knife, most smaller boats wont have a viable cleaning station on board which makes it easier in the knife work department and if you miss you mark and travel through the stomach cavity and into the filet you have actually taken a step backwards exposing the flesh to stomachs bacteria. This causes a thing called belly burn. It is just so much easier to work on fish once they have cooled down.
3-Shear size of the fish is an important factor, the eviscerating the fish will greatly decrease the cool down period, but if it is more of a multiple pan fish situation then overall I think is is best to hurry and cool them down come back and work on them all at once.

Typically I'll bang out most of this work (gutting and re-icing) on the run back in shore


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