MANAGING THE BOUNTY

In all of our typical rush to figure out the best techniques for catching fish, the best gear, the best spots and everything else associated with kayak fishing, it can be easy to overlook an important consideration: what is the best way to deal with the fish that you are harvesting?   As kayak fishermen, our space and mobility is limited on the water, but there are a few things that we can do to ensure that we're getting the best tasting fish and treating animal with respect.  These are are a few methods I have come across from various sources and employ to make sure I get the most out of the fish I keep.   

  1. USE A COOLER  This seems like a no-brainer, but a surprising amount of people seem to be okay with keeping their catch in the bottom of the canoe or kayak.  Fish spoil quickly when they die, and they flop around a ton, bruising the meat.  I have used a hard sided cooler,  a Columbia soft cooler which failed on me,  and currently use the AO 36-can size soft cooler, which I like a lot.   Different kayaks fit different size coolers, but there are a range of options out there.
  2. USE PLENTY OF ICE.  It can be tempting to use the least amount of ice you can get away with, particularly when you are paddling/pedaling, but using too little ice more or less defeats the purpose of even using a cooler.  I have seen the figure 2lbs of ice to every 1lb of fish, but that seems a little unrealistic in a kayak fishing scenario.  Even 3 slot redfish could put you well over 20lbs of ice.  I have found that 15-20lbs works well in my 36-can AO soft cooler.  Some people also advocate adding some water to the mix to create a slurry, but I have found that the melting ice pretty much takes care of that.  I do sometimes add some water when I get back to the launch or the house.  Fish that sit in a very cold slurry do seem to be far less slimy when you're ready to clean them.
  3. MANAGE THE FISH THROUGHOUT THE DAY.  This one can be tricky, but if you're harvesting a good amount of fish, the ones on top in the cooler aren't likely to stay very cool if the ice is sitting at the bottom of cooler.  Take some time to scoop out the ice on sitting on the bottom of the cooler and redistribute on top of the fish, and rotate the fish that haven't had a chance to cool yet to the bottom.
  4. TRY BLEEDING OUT THE FISH - Not only does this create less blood during the cleaning process and cleaner filets, it's a quicker death for the fish.  All fish are different - research the best method for bleeding the species you are targeting.
  5. CHILL BEFORE CLEANING - This may come down to personal preference, but I almost never clean fish that I just caught.  I prefer to let them chill in a ice water slurry for at least a few hours.  The meat becomes firmer, and a lot of the slime comes off, making them much easier to handle and cleanly filet.
  6. GET FILLETS RIGHT IN THE FRIDGE.  Especially if you're cleaning a bunch of fish, those first couple fillets are going to be sitting there getting warm and eaten up by flies pretty quickly.  One method that works well is sliding the fillets into a bath of ice water as you're cleaning them, keeping them cool and pulling any more slime and blood off them.
  7. DRY THE FILLETS IF THEY AREN'T GOING IN THE FREEZER.  It could just come down to personal preference, but I really like to try and dry the fillets well before cooking them.  I've noticed that they can hold water, which interferes with the cooking process.  I just put them in a strainer over a bowl for a while in the fridge, then pat dry with a paper towel.  They're easier to cook with and better tasting, in my opinion, and when you put them in a ziplock bag, you don't get that nasty pool of water in the bottom that invariably manages to leak out of the bag and drip down the side of the refrigerator that your wife just cleaned.
  8. GET A VACUUM SEALER - Best. Investment. Ever.  For just over $80, you can step up from dealing with water and ziplock bags, and get an entry level vacuum sealer that does a fine job.   Fillets look great, keep great, take up far less space in the freezer, are easier to give to friends, and defrost much better than fillets in water.  Not only that, but watching the vacuum sealer work is oddly satisfying and hypnotic.  
  9. FREEZE FILLETS IN ZIPLOCK BAGS WITH WATER.   If you don't have a vacuum sealer, you can freeze fillets in water, the water surrounding the fish keeping the air from interacting with the flesh and causing freezer burn.  The easiest way to do it is to place the filets in the ziplock, add water until the bag is totally full, then close the zip fastener almost all the way, and squeeze out any air bubbles along with most of the water.  Ideally you can squeeze all of the air out and leave just enough water to surround the fish.  Another way to do it is by submerging the ziplock with the fillets, either in a big container or in the sink, squeezing out the air.  
  10. LABEL THE FREEZER BAGS/ZIPLOCKS!   I'm not going to lie, I'm really just including this item to remind myself to do this.  Frozen fish all looks pretty much the same, and it gets hard to remember when you froze which batch.  Clearly, you want to eat the oldest fish first.  I usually give away a lot of fish, so I don't have anything older than a month or two in the freezer.
  11. TRY COMPOSTING THE WASTE If you have a decent size plot of land, fish waste can be buried or composted, saving you from trying to figure out how to get it to the trash without creating a biohazard in the trash can.  Of course, you have to remember where you buried it, or you might get a nice surprise next time you go to plant tulips...  Decomposing fish waste adds nutrients to the soil, and the fish bones will disturb and confuse the next people to live in the house when they plant their garden.  
  12. FREEZE THE WASTE If you don't feel like dealing with composting the waste, it's a good idea to consider freezing it until the next trash day, so your neighbors don't give you the evil eye for your obscenely stinky trash can.   Of course, you have to have room in the freezer, and you have to remember to take the trash out, or face the scrutiny of your better half.

Hope that helps, until next time!