I just enjoyed some salmon cooked over the grill, served to friends who marveled at how fresh it tasted even though it was caught and processed last June. That fish, nearly nine months old, tasted so good and impressed my friends because of just a few tricks, a little extra effort taken last spring when it was landed and subsequently filleted and frozen. The secret to good quality all starts when the fish is first landed.
It might not seem like it when an enraged sockeye is furiously ripping line off your reel, but fish is really a very delicate food and needs to be handled gently. That means not allowing it to flop around on shore, or at least keeping its struggle to a minimum.
It’s best to dispatch the fish right away with a sharp whack to the skull. Back when I was a kid, we used to keep fish alive streamside on a stringer. The thinking was that the fish would remain fresher the longer it lived.
This, however, was a complete fallacy. Fish, like any other animal, build up lactic acid with an increase in stress, which when released makes flesh tough. It’s the same reason hunters want a good, fast, clean kill.
Once the fish is immobilized you never want to pick it up by the tail as this will break the vertebrae which will in turn cause what is commonly referred to as the “bloodline,” the jellylike substance which runs along the backbone, to leach into the meat. This “bloodline” in reality serves as a kidney function, and its enzymes will immediately begin to affect the fish’s delicate flesh.
The next step in caring for your catch is to immediately bleed the fish. This is best accomplished by cutting a single gill arch. This should be done right away while the heart is still pumping so as to remove as much blood as soon as possible.
Then it’s on to the ice, perhaps the most important and most often overlooked step in maintaining a quality product. Icing the fish as soon as possible will keep your catch firm and fresh. The colder the better. On extended trips, I often use frozen gallon milk jugs, so as not to end up with slush, which can cause fish to turn soft. Another option is to use or build a rack on the bottom of the cooler, so that there is a place for the water to drain. If heading out on a charter, always check with your skipper and make sure they plan on bleeding and icing your catch. If I intend on keeping the fish whole, which occasionally I do with lake-caught trout or kokanee, I will remove the viscera, or guts, and the gills right away. Both of these areas contain enzymes that can have a negative impact on the meat. In most cases, however, I am filleting larger fish, such as salmon.
At this point I will mention that when keeping salmon I always start with the brightest, firmest fish possible. I’ve heard many fishers refer to blush salmon as “smokers,” but I’ve found that smoking a subpar fish does absolutely nothing to improve its quality. I am a firm believer in the adage: “junk in the smoker, junk out of the smoker.”
When filleting, I want a good, level and clean surface. That means really looking over a boat-launch cleaning station. Whether at the Homer or Seward harbor or along the Kenai River, take a close look at the accumulation of slime and guts, and the flies that accompany it. It does not take long, especially on a warm day, for the filth and bacteria to build up. That’s why if I am going to use a public cleaning station, I bring a spray bottle with bleach solution and scouring pad.
If I only have one or two fish that I’m planning to freeze, I am able to be extremely careful with my fillets. That means once the fillets are cut from the body I can keep the exposed meat completely dry. That’s right, I don’t rinse it, just wipe it off with a rag. Less water, less chance of oxidation, less chance of freezer burn. Of course, with a large number of fish, or if I’ve been dipnetting, this is not possible. If blood or slime is on a fillet it should rinsed and then dried as much as possible before freezing.
If freezing for extended periods, nothing beats vacuum packing. Over the years I’ve learned that wrapping the fish in plastic wrap before placing it in the vacuum bag will create more vacuum and ensure a better seal.
Once my fish is sealed and ready for the freezer, I spread the packages out on the freezer shelf, and only freeze a few packages at a time. I leave the rest in the refrigerator until those in the freezer are frozen solid. This allows the fish to freeze faster, a key to avoiding, or at least putting off freezer burn. Remember, the quicker a fish is frozen, the better. And always label what it is and when it was frozen.
This is just the beginning of assuring a quality catch, a few tips that will keep you and your guests eating the tastiest fish far into the winter and even into next spring.
For more information on this topic, as well as for recipes and advice on canning and smoking, one of the best resources is the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Office. Our local office is located on K-beach road, next to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Until next time, good eating!
Dave Atcheson is the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, and National Geographic’s Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond.” His latest book is “Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas.” For more info: www.daveatcheson.com.
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Tight Lines publishes on the third Thursday of the month from September through April. It will return as a weekly feature in May. Have a photo, fish tale or favorite recipe to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.