By Mark Conway, for the Redoubt Reporter
With fishing season now in full swing for halibut, king and sockeye salmon, the question is, how do you preserve your catch? No matter if you are planning to barbecue, smoke or can a fresh-caught fish, the answer is the same: Chill the meat as soon as you kill the fish and keep the meat clean. In this way, you capture the delicious flavor found only in fresh-caught fish meat.
I have to tell you, though, I once hated the smell of salmon cooking. When I was a child, I gagged at the thought of salmon passing my lips. Little did I know that my tongue and stomach were really in partnership with the fish I was eating. The salmon really tasted fishy, as in spoiled, and it was. My mom didn’t know any better. She had never tasted a fresh-caught salmon before. Most of the salmon we ate in our Eastern Washington farm town were the store-bought, canned variety. If someone asked my mom what kind of salmon it was, she would answer, “You know, salmon.”
Meat begins to spoil immediately after the critter is killed. Fish are no exception. Decomposition of muscle cells (meat) starts immediately after the blood stops flowing to the muscle tissue. To slow down the process of decomposition in the muscle tissue, or spoilage, one must immediately put the fish meat in crushed ice or a cold refrigerator and lower the temperature of the meat below 40 degrees. You preserve not only the meat from spoiling, but also that delectable flavor we all enjoy from the fresh catch of the day.
When my wife, Maryna, and I go fishing, we bring an ice chest half full of crushed ice on the boat or near us if we are fishing the bank to put the fresh fish meat in right after we kill it. After we have caught a fish to keep, we bonk the fish on the head to keep it from thrashing and bruising the meat. We then immediately cut the gills of the fish to bleed it out and kill it. The heart will continue to pump blood out of the meat long after the fish is dead. If the blood is left in the fish, it settles in the meat and gives it that fowl taste that no one likes.
We set the fish in a shady place out of the sun to bleed out, then we put it on ice. Putting the fish on a stringer in the water will not keep the meat cold enough to stop decomposition from starting right away. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “Our salmon tasted real bad. What do you think we did wrong?”
After the fish has bled out, we wash the fish off in the river or stream and place it in the ice chest with crushed ice on top and bottom of the fish. This is what some commercial fishermen do with their fish, when they are paid top dollar for their catch. I worked two summers as a deckhand helping gillnet sockeye salmon years ago. One skipper I worked for did not ice his fish and the other did. The skipper who iced his fish made a lot more per pound for his fish than the other skipper. Why? The taste of the fish is everything to the fish buyer. They know what good fish will sell for in a fresh fish market.
Some people like to chop the head off and gut their fish right there on the spot. Not a bad idea, but again, get it on ice as soon as possible to save the flavor of the meat.
Some folks like to fillet their fish and wash the meat in the river. I disagree. If you want the best possible flavor and texture, do not let water touch the meat. Some folks like to throw all their fish fillets together in a bucket or place them in freezer bags right at the river. Again, it’s not the best practice. If the fish slime on the skin touches the meat, you have just tainted your fish. It won’t spoil your meat, but it won’t have the best flavor you may be looking for.
Will meat that’s not chilled poison you? No, most likely not. But you may think you were poisoned if you have to chew it up and swallow it after it’s cooked.
If the fish meat smells fishy, it’s spoiled. If the meat’s texture is grainy when you prepare to vacuum seal it, it most likely got wet. If you freeze wet fish meat, the water crystallizes and punctures the freezer bag and you have freezer-burned meat in just a few days or weeks in the freezer.
Meat that is quick-frozen with a supercold commercial process is the best-kept meat. If you’re like me, though, and want to save a few dollars, try these suggestions: We like to keep our fish meat dry, not allowing water to touch the meat. We skin most of our meat and place in zip-top bags, then on ice. When we get home, we vacuum-seal our fish in FoodSaver bags, making sure the seal is 100 percent dry before sealing, wiping the area to be sealed with a dry paper towel. You want to keep air off your meat as much possible, so quickly cut your meat up and seal it in a vacuum packer and freeze it.
Clean-handled fish and chilled meat right away will give you that enhanced taste and best-eating fish flavor we all desire.
Mark Conway is a master fly-fishing guide and has been a professional fishing guide and fly-fishing instructor since 1984. He and his wife, Maryna, own Alaska Fly Fishing Adventures and Outfitting in Sterling. Conway attended the Kenai River Guide Academy and has been fishing in Alaska since 1983. Visit Alaskaflyfishingadventures.net or contact Conway at firstname.lastname@example.org.