You have been fishing for two to three days and one of the most important items in you basket of knowledge is to bring them back fresh. After all, when you figure in the cost of going on a trip two to three hundred miles from home, you want to get the cost per pound down to a reasonable amount. This amount will vary for everyone. I know for a fact that I may be asked this question, “Would it have been cheaper to buy them at the store.” It is just not the same as bringing back your catch to share.
Fresh fish is one of my favorite foods, and unfortunately it is one of the most perishable. From the moment you catch it, it may start to deteriorate due to the sudden change of moving from a cold environment into a warmer one. The enzymes in its digestive system work harder attacking the muscular tissue by penetrating the alimentary canal. Deterioration starts from within. Keeping it alive while you are fishing is imperative during the day. I constantly keep changing the water in the live wells, and keep the mix of big and small fish in each well relatively the same. If the weather was warm and I was catching fish, I would sometimes add a bag of ice to each live well to cool down the water. One of the best methods I have ever seen was used by a guide in Canada for keeping fish fresh during the day. He kept a gunny sack (burlap bag) in the boat and put the fish in it tying the bag over the side. The bag was kept deeply submerged except when traversing to another spot, or was brought up at the end of the day. When the fish were out of the water, the bag helped keep them cool and moist. When using a stringer, I always hook the fish through the lower and upper lips. This allows the gills to work rather than holding the mouth open, and causing drowning. Then I lower the fish into the water making sure I let out all the line available on the stringer. I want the fish to be below the bottom of the boat and move into cooler water the shade offers. I never lift them out unless I am adding one, or moving the boat.
Now to get them home. If I am on a trip where I am spending the night and there is a freezer available, this solves a lot of issues. The fish are immediately filleted, dried, and sharp frozen. Hard as steel and well packed in ice or dry ice upon the trip home, I keep the cooler inside the vehicle to keep it out of the sun. I also make sure the cooler has been washed well inside with a hot soda water solution and air dried in the sun. I want nothing inside that could spoil the fish.
If I am driving home in the evening after catching some fish, I gut and gill them making sure to remove all of the insides. Every piece of the inside is removed and I run my thumb down the bottom side of the back bone and remove the blood and tissue deposited there. All the guts must be removed. At this point I wash the fish completely and then make sure it is completely dry. Water will hasten deterioration of the meat. Drying is very important. Placing the gut, gilled, and completely dried fish in a plastic bag, then making sure it is sealed with the air out of the bag and you are almost done. I then pack the bagged fish in ice with chunks or cubes at the bottom of the cooler and crushed ice around the fish and cubes on top. This will get it home it great condition where they can be filleted out or sharp frozen. Again, my cooler has been washed and air dried in the sun before using it.
Life is good, and it is better when we sit down to dine with family and friends on some fresh fish you have just caught and brought home for everyone to enjoy.
Good fishing, Good hunting, and Good luck. Hank
P.S. Have a tip, a picture or a great story, e-mail it to me, and we will get it published.