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Taking proper care of fish

When I was a teenager I knew of an old fellow who carried onto a boat a rectangular wash tub where he would toss northern pike that he and his family caught.

The fish were a sight to see when he arrived in camp in late afternoon. Sitting in the sun all day, the fish had a brown, copper hue to them. I can’t imagine how they tasted.

Until three years ago when I bought a boat with a live well, I simply used stringers to keep fish during a day’s outing. Granted, most of my fishing has been in the spring and in Canada where the water is cold and the weather usually is chilly.

The live well is a lot simpler — no tying and untying stringers, no stringing and unstringing fish. But you have to hit the aerate button periodically to keep oxygenated water in the well or the fish will die. Also, the more fish in the well the more frequent is the necessity of aerating. How a live well would work when it is 90 degrees outside with water temperatures in the 70s or more, I do not know.

At that point I’d put fish on ice in a cooler. That’s the way we used to handle our salmon while I lived in Alaska — two bags of ice dumped into the bottom of the boat cooler. It kept salmon chilled all day.

When I used to do a lot of fishing for yellow perch and bluegill in spring and summer I’d use a fish basket with a spring-loaded lid. Fishing from a small boat I’d just dangle the basket in the water while tied to a quarter-inch line. If fishing from shore I’d tie the same line to a stake.

Long-term fish storage is another concern. The worst approach is to toss fillets into a Zip-lock bag and then into the freezer. Within a couple months you’ll have locker burned fish.

Fill the Zip-lock with cold water first, squeeze out all the air before freezing. White-fleshed fish can be preserved at least a year when frozen in water. (Just last week we ate a package of 13-month-old walleye fillets and they were excellent, sweet with no locker burn or “fishy” flavor.)

For years we used half-gallon milk cartons filled with water and fillets, tape them up and label them. This is also a great way to store fish in a freezer, in fact I prefer the cartons to Zip-locks because the cartons are easy to stack.

Zip-locks usually freeze into a massive block, so you need to take them out and drop the “block” gently onto the concrete garage floor to break up the packages. I use Zip-locks most of the time these days because agents at the Canadian border like to see through the bag when checking an angler’s fish. So as long as I’ve gotten the Zip-locks fishy, I figure I may as well fill them with water once I get home and freeze the fillets in that manner.

A revelation in packing fish has been the result of the shrink wrap machines that have come onto the market during the last decade or two. These work well if you handle the packages gently. Otherwise you’ll break the seal and have locker-burned fish. Shrink-wrapping is particularly good when transporting fish by air. It would be impractical to try to ship fish frozen in ice!

One final thought — some fish simply keep better than other species. In my experience, the easiest fish to preserve are white-fleshed species like yellow perch, bluegills, walleyes, northern pike, halibut, Pacific cod, and rockfish. Oily fish like salmon are best eaten within three or four months. Some fish, like rainbow trout, brown trout and lake trout, keep very poorly. They are best eaten fresh, smoked or not at all. Lake trout in particular tend to get “fishy” even when frozen in water.

One time many years ago my brother won a trip to Reindeer Lake, Saskatchewan where he had a fine time and gave me a fillet off a big lake trout he had taken — 17 or 19 pounds — I forget which. Since he had just caught the fish a month or so earlier, I put it in the oven with Laurie’s favorite spicing that she used on salmon. Alas, the stink just about drove us out of the kitchen! We gave up on it, let the fillet cool and fed it to old Boogie, alias “the attack beagle.”

Sometimes things just don’t turn out the way we wish!

Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974