Most anglers today understand the importance of catch and release. The conservation message has become deeply embedded into our minds, which is a good thing since fish populations are under pressure from so many sources.
All the same, the majority of fishermen like to bring home a few fish for the table at least occasionally. But we don’t catch fillets — we catch whole living animals. Unless you’re an otter, you’ll probably want to do some processing of those fish before they go on a plate.
Today, we’re looking at the first step in that procedure: Killing the fish. Most of us don’t enjoy this step, but it’s necessary. You have several options. We’ll examine them one at a time.
When you take a fish out of the water, it can’t breathe. If it can’t breathe, it will die. While this method is efficient, there are some very good reasons that it shouldn’t be your choice.
PRO: If you’re really that lazy, you don’t have to do anything.
CON: Fish that die lingering deaths release a stream of stress hormones into their bloodstreams. These hormones can give the meat an “off” taste. The rapid heartbeat and dilated blood vessels of a stressed fish mean more blood in the muscles — again, not great for best table quality. (By the way, fish kept in livewells or on stringers have the same stress problem. This is one reason why I suggest immediately killing fish you are harvesting.)
Also, it’s not a bad thing to show some respect for a life that you are taking to sustain your own. In hunting, we always try to make a clean kill and avoid suffering. Why should it be any different when the animal has scales instead of fur?
This method is messy and a bit caveman-like, but it makes sense for some species and in some circumstances. While any blunt swingable object will do, the ideal club will be about 18 inches long and heavier at the tip. Some have flexible shafts; others look like miniature baseball bats. Hit the fish on the top of the head, between but just behind the eyes. One or two whacks is generally sufficient; you’re trying to kill it, not smash its head open. The exception: Sharks, which often require multiple hard blows.
PRO: Very effective at quickly subduing fish, which is important when they’re dangerously toothy (sharks, kingfish, barracuda, etc.) or known for thrashing (cobia).
CON: Can be bloody. A missed swing might hit something you really didn’t want to break (your leg, your buddy’s leg, a rod, the boat, etc.).
If we let the fish choose an execution method, this would probably be their pick. Spiking, also called pithing or iki-jime, uses an icepick or similar instrument to destroy the brain and therefore is absolutely painless (if there’s no brain to receive pain signals, there’s no pain). The challenge is in doing it right. Done wrong, it’s not only painful but the fish will fight back.
PRO: The closest thing possible to a truly immediate death.
CON: The technique is very specific. There is nothing intuitive about this method unless you are a fish anatomist, so it has to be learned. There’s a great video at http://bit.ly/2YUJiEK that will walk you through it.
Did anybody ever tell you booze is dangerous? Well, if you’re a fish, and you accidentally get some high-proof alcohol on your gills, it’s deadly — fast. It gets absorbed into the bloodstream and shuts down the central nervous system. Drinks like a fish? That fish must have been suicidal. You don’t need to use the good stuff. The cheapest vodka you can find is just fine. Put it in a spray bottle, set it to the widest open setting, and spritz the red part of the gills. For big fish, take the top of the bottle off and just pour some on the gills.
PRO: Quick and easy. A spray bottle of alcohol is also great for disinfecting minor wounds or surfaces such as fillet tables.
CON: Religious beliefs may cause problems if you’re spotted at the liquor store. (If that’s the case, send a friend or neighbor — God will understand, since you’re not actually drinking it.) Open container laws don’t apply on the boat but do in your truck. To be legal, an unsealed container of alcohol must be in a locked non-passenger area of the vehicle.
Hypothermia is a real danger to boaters, even in Florida. Our winter water temperatures are sometimes sufficient to kill humans if we have no way to get warm and dry. Fish live in them just fine — but if you make it cold enough, water can kill them too. To make a supercooled slush, empty a couple bags of ice into your cooler, then add enough seawater to make the ice float. If you’re fishing in fresh water or a low-salinity area, adding salt will help. This mixture will cool down to below the usual freezing temp of water, usually to about 25 degrees.
When you put a fish into this slush, its body temperature drops quickly. The shock of such a rapid change will cause changes — most notably, the blood will be drawn out of the muscle (the meat) and into the organs. The meat of slushed fish is noticeably whiter and less “fishy” tasting.
PRO: Relatively quick. No blood, and no bleeding required. No specialized equipment. No learning curve.
CON: From the fish’s standpoint, it’s probably better to be spiked or soaked in booze, both of which kill faster.
To bleed or not to bleed
Most people don’t like the taste of blood. Even if you like your steaks “rare and bloody,” you’re still not getting actual blood because slaughtered livestock is always bled out. In fish, blood contributes a metallic and fishy flavor. The more of it you remove from the meat, the cleaner and milder your fish will taste. This is true of any species, from bluefish to red snapper.
The most effective way to remove all or most of the blood is to allow the animal’s natural pump — the heart — to do the job for you. Once the fish has been spiked, boozed or clubbed, cut the throat. You can do this with a knife or scissors (kitchen shears are handy). Make the cut right where the gill slits meet, and really open it up.
This is messy and less than pleasant, but it will improve the quality of your table fare and also lessens any suffering bu hastening death for the fish. Bleeding the fish into a bucket of water or into the livewell will keep your decks from looking like a slaughterhouse.
As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.