In spite of a host of regulations which sometimes seem designed to keep us from ever keeping any fish, it really is possible to go fishing in Southwest Florida and catch a keeper. And sometimes we can get lucky and catch a batch of them.
When you decide to harvest fish to eat, you are faced with a question: How should you keep your keepers? Most local saltwater anglers go with one of two options: They either keep their fish alive in a release well, or chill them in an ice cooler. Each strategy has advantages and disadvantages.
Most modern flats or bay boats are equipped with live bait wells or release wells that are capable of maintaining at least a few keeper-sized edible fish alive during a fishing trip. The main advantage of keeping your fish in a live well (or a release well) is that it’s easy. Just flip the switch to get the pump running, plop your fish in there, then close the lid and forget it.
There is no need to carry an ice-filled cooler and no need to clean that gooey mix of fish slime and fish poo out of a cooler at trip’s end. Plus, if you unexpectedly catch a fish that you want to keep but you didn’t bring any ice, you can still make a last-minute decision to have fresh fish for dinner.
There is another advantage to keeping your fish alive too, but it comes with conditions. Some people drop a keeper fish in a live well to hold it for a while before they decide whether they really want to keep it or not. You might not want to bother with just one 12-inch mangrove snapper — but if you caught a few more, then you’d have enough for a meal. If the first fish turns out to be the only fish, it could later be released.
Mangrove snapper are pretty hardy in a livewell and will usually survive this process but some other fish are not so tough. For example, Spanish mackerel usually die within minutes of being put in a live well, so they’re not good candidates for this practice.
You also need to be aware of a legal quirk: If you put a fish in a live well, according to Florida law you have possessed that fish. That means it counts toward your daily bag limit for that species, even if you later release it. For species which have a one-fish bag limit, such as snook and redfish (when those seasons are open), by law you cannot keep a smaller legal fish and then later upgrade or cull it for a larger one.
There are some drawbacks to holding keeper fish in a live well. One of them is that if your fish are sharing space with your bait, they may eat some of it. Redfish are so notorious for this that it has been a common practice for tournament fishermen to put a bunch of bait in the well with their redfish before weigh-in so the fish will gorge itself and weigh heavier at day’s end.
Another disadvantage to keeping your fish alive: It’s more difficult to clean a fish that’s alive than one that’s been iced. Not only is it challenging (and a little risky) to fillet a flopping fish, but the flesh of a live fish is not as firm as the flesh of a dead and chilled fish so your cuts won’t be as clean on a live fish.
A lot of anglers also believe that the stress that a fish experiences from hours of riding around in a live well during the last hours of its life negatively affects the taste of the fillets. I don’t know if you truly can taste stress hormones, but maybe some folks can.
Icing your fresh catch in a cooler requires more work, but it offers some distinct advantages over keeping them alive until they are cleaned. To ice your fish, you’ve first got to have a fish box and ice. This means that you’ve got to remember to load a cooler and fill it with ice as part of your pre-trip ritual, and that you’ll have a cooler to scrub at day’s end.
But if you keep a lot of fish, like most offshore anglers, there are coolers that can hold far more fish than can be contained in any live well. The food quality of iced fish is probably going to be better than the quality of fish held in a live well. Plus, there’s no need to chase frisky fish around in a livewell at trip’s end. You just grab the cooler and go to the fish cleaning table.
If you want to take the best possible care of the fish in your cooler, take one extra step. Add enough salt water to the ice in the cooler so that you can submerge the fish in the resulting slurry. This does a quick and thorough job of cooling your fish clear through, and they will be colder this way because the salt water actually lowers the temperature in the cooler a bit below the 32-degree starting temperature of the ice.
This is kind of like adding rock salt to the ice in your ice cream maker to lower its temperature (you old-timers will know what I’m talking about). But use salt water, not actual salt — you can make your ice too efficient and end up with fish that are frozen solid when you slap them on the fillet table.
Let’s go fishing!
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.