If you fish, then you probably already know there is nothing like eating fresh fish that has never seen a freezer. Of course, frozen fish is better than none at all, and if frozen properly, it’s not bad at all, but it will never be as good as when it was fresh caught, or even better, cooked right on the river or lake shore before it has ever been cooled down. It’s the same with shrimp, crabs, lobsters, clams, mussels, crawfish…all are better when fresh-caught, or at least they seem to be.
While I am extolling the virtues of fresh aquatic cuisine, I need to emphasize that this is all dependent on handling your catch correctly until it hits the plate. There is nothing on the planet that spoils (decomposes) faster than fish and seafood. There are several reasons for this:
Fish and seafood are very primitive animals. In fact they were the second or third complex organisms to evolve on the planet. So, the protein in these critters is what we consider as ‘high-quality’, meaning it breaks down very rapidly and is easily used by the body. Proteins are created by 20 amino acids forming a peptide chain. The order in which they are formed gives different animal tissues their characteristics. Fish tissue is a primitive protein, very basic, because fish do not have to work very hard to offset gravity, or maintain their body temperatures. Most fish tissues are not very efficient at storing energy, because they usually only have to have short busts of speed to catch food or escape predators. The exceptions are fish like tuna and salmon, that travel great distances very rapidly, which is why their flesh tends to be more of a red color, due to increased hemoglobin efficiency. When other animals like birds and mammals die, they have large stores of glycogen in their muscles (glycogen is the fuel that muscles burn to be able to function…), which is released, and acts like a preservative for a time. Fish, crustaceans, and mollusks do not store much glycogen, because they don’t need it, so the protein bonds break down much more rapidly. Of course, this is why fish is much more easily broken down and used by the organisms that eat them. Cool temperatures and freezing can slow down the glycogen depletion considerably.
Fish contain high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are excellent for your health, because they oxidize so readily and are easily used by your body. But this also means that they will break down, and become rancid very quickly once a fish is dead. Cool temperatures, and freezing can slow this down or even stop it for a while.
Fish have much more active enzymes in their digestive systems. This is because most fish, crustaceans and mollusks cannot chew their food. Their teeth , if they even have them at all, are designed to cause massive tissue damage, or hold something still while it is swallowed, so their digestive systems have to be able to break down either whole food, or large chunks at best, bones and all. When a fish dies, these enzymes quickly work though the tissues as they break down, and go to work on the fish itself. This is why it is important to ‘gut’ a fish, or clean out the abdominal cavity and remove the gills as quickly as possible once the fish is dead.
With these facts in mind, it is important how you handle your fish from the water to the table. There are several ways to keep fish in top condition until cooking time. The best is to keep them alive right until dressing time., This is best done with a floating fish basket. This allows plenty of water circulation so they can breath easy, and no hard sides that they can bruise themselves on (this will effect the meat). The next best thing is a ‘live box’. They can be as simple as a cooler with water in it, or a fancy built-in well on your boat, complete with a water circulation system. They are OK, but usually are of small dimensions, and the fish can bang themselves up pretty good trying to escape. The last resorts are stringers. They may keep fish alive, but fish with tender mouths like crappie can twist off of them, Also, other local diners can (and usually will) help themselves to some of your catch, such as turtles, crabs, sharks, barracudas, and even cottonmouths ( a very venomous and aggressive water snake in the southern U.S.). Never eat a fish that has been bitten by a cottonmouth, even if it is still alive. This why it is a bad idea to have a stringer attached to you while wade fishing, especially in salt water, or areas that have alligators.
The next best thing, or maybe the best, depending on how long you plan to be out, is to immediately chill the fish as soon as they are caught. This is easily done by keeping a cooler full of ice near where you are fishing. Just toss them in the cooler, and they will go dormant in seconds. For crabs, clams, conks, oysters, scallops, crayfish, shrimp and mussels, never throw them directly on the ice. Place a moist towel over the ice, then throw them in.
If you are wading remote streams (like where I live), and you plan to cook a few trout or other fish, almost as soon as you catch them, it is OK to use a creel, as long as you dress the fish within 15 minutes or so. You can just throw them in the creel and let them suffocate (I think this is a bit inhumane, but no worse than what fish do to each other….), but I usually break their necks, then clean out the body cavity and gills, and place them in the creel. When I get to the bank, I just start a fire, poke a stick through their mouths and bodies, poke the other end of the stick into the ground close to the fire, and let them hang near the fire until they are done, turning them once or twice throughout the cooking process……..caveman cooking at its best……For shellfish, I just make a fire on the beach, place a very large pot (or 55 gal. oil drum) over the fire with a gallon or so of the local water and let it boil, Then drop in a layer of local seaweed, or moss. On top of these, drop a layer of mollusks, then a layer of moss, then another layer of animals, and so on until you run out of animals. Then, I just put a cover over the pot, grab my guitar and play some Jimmy Buffet, and acoustic music for about 20-30 minutes. If the shells have popped open, they are done. It’s time to chow down (by this time I have usually attracted some bystanders, who are only too happy to make sure I have no leftovers…).
If you’ve taken your catch home, do not freeze them without properly dressing them. Just throw the crustaceans and mollusks into a large pot of heavily boiling water. Be careful with crabs and lobsters. They will sometimes grab the edge of the pot, and try to turn it over on you. These tough little guys will fight to the end. Ditto for octopi and squids. These are best killed by inserting a knife blade quickly between the eyes. This kills them instantly. As for the others, the boiling water kills them in seconds. If you are squeamish, just remember, this is nothing compared to what they do to each other. They give no quarter, nor do they expect it.
As for fish, how you dress them may depend a lot on how you want to cook them. They can be killed by inserting a knife right between the eyes. This destroys what they have for a brain, and is relatively painless and quick. Again, it’s much more humane than what they do to each other….
I usually prefer to fillet them, which is best for frying, and also good for broiling and baking, if the fish is fatty enough, or you add enough fat (like butter and olive oil). Depending on the species, you can leave the skin on (scaled), or off. Leaving the skin on can help hold the fish together while baking, or broiling, and can easily be removed before serving. Catfish can be filleted, but are also great pan-dressed. Just clean out the abdomen, remove the gills and skin, and the head. Leave the fins on, because they will help keep the fish moist. Other fish are great market-dressed, which is the same as pan-dressed, only leave the head on. The head really keeps them from drying out. They can be skinned, or just scaled, depending on the fish species. Really large fish can be ‘steaked’. Just market dress then, and cut them into sections between the vertebrae. If you plan on using any fish for sushi, or seviche, make sure you keep it very cold at all times.
There are a few extra considerations on some species. Striped bass and carp have a red ‘blood line’ running the length of their bodies. Just be sure to remove that when you clean them, or it can make you very sick. I love carp. They have a very undeserved bad reputation in the U.S. People have been eating them for thousands of years in Europe and Asia. Carp meat is firm, sweet, and a little oily, like mackerel, tuna, salmon, sardines and similar fish. They are delicious, and there are plenty of them,,,everywhere. There are usually no limits on them, and most states are happy for you to catch and keep all you want. They are demons on a fly rod, and fight like a bonefish on steroids. U.S. carp are a vastly under-used resource. Carp (and pike as well) simply require two extra steps in preparation that takes maybe 5 more minutes. They are very bony, so they are best filleted. Once you have filleted the carp and removed the ‘blood line’, feel along the side of the fillet. You will find a line of ‘y’-shaped bones near the lateral line. Run your knife blade along the top of this line of bones until that piece comes free. Now, run your blade under the bones and you have another fillet. Grab the fillet from the other side and repeat. Now, just discard the small strip with the bones, and you’ re done. You get four nice fillets from each fish. BTW, carp are exceptionally good smoked., maybe one of the best fish ever for the smoker…..IMHO.
When you are done dressing the fish, rinse them off well in clean water. If you are not going to cook them soon (within a few hours), wrap them tightly in freezer paper, or bags, and quick-freeze them ( 0°F or colder). Other wise, dry them off, and keep then cold until cooking time, either in the fridge, or a container with cold water in it. Never place the meat directly against ice, because it will get freeze-burned. For crustaceans, simply pull the tails off of crawfish , lobsters and shrimp. You can peel them, or not at this stage. Shellfish can just be removed from the shells, or left in, your choice. They require no further dressing. For crabs, there is a small triangular tab at the back of the abdomen. Just grab it and pull it off like a soda-can tab (if you remember those….), and all of the internal organs and such come out with it. You can now break the crab into pieces, or leave it whole, your choice.
If you’ve caught a female fish with eggs, don’t waste them. Caviar is easily made at home, and the eggs can also dusted and fried, skeins and all. Most fish eggs can be used, except gar, and some salt water fish like barracuda and puffer fish. Their eggs are toxic to humans. Catfish and carp make exceptional caviar, as does salmon, steelhead and trout eggs. Paddlefish caviar is outstanding and in Russia, is called Lumpfish. Most panfish eggs are too small to be easily removed from the skeins, but the skeins can be breaded and fried for a delicious treat. To make caviar, simply remove the egg skeins, gently so as not to break too many eggs. Make a brine by using 2 cups of cold water for every cup of eggs you have, and 1/2 cup of non-iodized salt (iodine salt will make the eggs turn black and mushy….). Completely dissolve the salt in the water and add the eggs. Let them soak in the refrigerator for 30 minute or so, then remove them to another bowl. Gently run warm water over the skeins, and carefully remove the eggs from the membranes. Return the eggs to the cold brine and allow to chill in the fridge for an hour or so, then drain them in a colander, place them in glass jars, and let them chill a little longer, or even better, overnight. You may never want the store-bought kind again, once you’ve tasted these.
One more tip for preparing fish: Most people that object to fish, or the ‘fishy’ taste are really saying that they find the taste and smell of the oils in the fish objectionable. Most of the oils in fish are contained in the skin, so removing it will take away a lot of the ‘fishy’ taste and smell. Another trick is to soak the fish for several hours in milk, or buttermilk. This leaches out the oils in the flesh. When you are ready to cook it, you just rinse the milk off of the fish, and the oils go with it. These missing oils can now be replaced with butter, margarine, olive oil, a strip of bacon, or something else your guests may find more palatable.
After all is said and done, maybe it is not so much that fresh-caught fish is really better-tasting, as much as the idea that you just fed yourself, with your own two hands and brain, just like your cave-dwelling and savannah-dwelling ancestors have done since the dawn of time. So, it’s OK to bring home a few catfish, beat on your chest, howl at the moon, and chow down on a great piscatorial feast once in a while. I will do you a lot of good, both physically and mentally.