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A Pocket Guide to Care and Handling of Fish from Stream to Table
by Julie Garden-Robinson, Martin Marchello, and Pat Beck
Enjoy Your Catch at its Best
Fish are fun to catch and nutritious to eat. They
are high in protein, rich in vitamins and minerals, and
low in saturated fat. Fish oils are high in
polyunsaturated fats that may function in lowering
A 3-1/2-ounce portion of fish (before cooking)
provides about half of the daily adult protein
requirement and has, depending on the species of
fish, only 100 to 150 calories.
Proper handling of fish from the time you catch
them until you get them to the table will help
maintain optimum eating quality. Keep the following
fish handling tips in mind.
Care on the Water
- Keep fish alive as long as possible. Fish flesh is very
- A metal link basket or live box is best. A stringer can
damage the fish and increase chances of bacterial
- If the water is warm, place the fish on ice or keep
them in cool water.
- Don't toss fish into the bottom of the boat where
they will dry out or where their flesh may become
bruised and susceptible to contamination.
- Keep fish out of sunlight and direct heat.
- During winter fishing trips, keep fish covered to
prevent them from freezing and drying out.
- For optimal eating quality, fish should not be
frozen by throwing them out onto the ice. Put fish in
an ice chest or styrofoam cooler to prevent freezing
and dehydration. Clean them prior to freezing.
- Check fish for signs of disease or parasites.
- A healthy fish should have firm flesh with no signs
of discoloration/browning, a mild and fresh smell, bright
and clear eyes and red gills.
- A diseased fish may have sunken eyes or "pop-
eyes", discolored skin, loose scales, open wounds or
gills that are white and slimy or bloody.
- In some cases, the fish is edible if the diseased
area is removed. Fish should be thoroughly cooked.
- After removing the usable flesh, do not throw the
remains back in the water. Dispose of them properly.
- Decide on the fate of the fish immediately. If you
do not want them, release them right away, instead of
waiting to decide at the end of the day when they
may have a reduced chance for survival.
- Check with your local game and fish
representative if you find abnormal growths in the
- Fish in safe waters.
- Some waters may be contaminated by pesticides
or other substances. For information on the safety of
fishing waters, contact your local health department.
- Contaminants are concentrated in the fatty parts
of the fish. To reduce your risks of consuming
contaminants, remove the skin and fat deposits when
you clean fish, or use fillets instead of whole fish.
Choose a cooking method that removes additional fat,
such as baking, broiling or charbroiling.
Care in Cleaning and Storage
- Clean and cool fish as soon as possible. Time and
heat can rob freshness and flavor.
- Fish spoil rapidly due to their strong digestive
juices. If fish are not cleaned promptly, off-flavors
- You will need a sharp knife to clean the fish.
Bleed the fish. Cut the throat as you would any game
animal, and remove the gills and entrails. Wipe the
surface of the fish with a clean cloth or paper towel.
Put the fish in a plastic bag, then put on ice.
- If making fillets, rinse the fish in clean cold water
to remove blood, bacteria and enzymes.
- Don't cross-contaminate. Clean the knife after each
- When you clean fish at home, wash your hands,
the knife and the cutting board with warm soapy
water after each use.
- Store cleaned fresh fish in the refrigerator in a
covered container and use within two days.
Fish should be kept moist but not wet.
- Cleaned fish may be frozen whole or as fillets.
- Traditionally, fish have been frozen whole, as they
come from the water. This practice is not
recommended because deterioration may occur and
poor eating quality may result.
- Improperly wrapped frozen fish may become
dehydrated ("freezer burn") due to
contact with air. This condition negatively affects
taste and texture.
- Divide fish into family-size servings and use a
plastic cling-type wrap as an outer covering. Bread
bags, waxed paper and cellophane wraps are poor
- Remember to press air from the package to help
prevent off-flavors or odors characteristic of rancidity.
- If freezer space is available, smaller fish may be
placed in water in plastic containers, in clean wax- or
plastic-lined milk containers, and then frozen.
- Label each package with the contents and date.
- The temperature of the freezer should be 0ºF
or lower. When freezing large amounts of food, scatter
the packages throughout the freezer so the food
Care in Preparation and Preservation
- Prepare fish properly. Cook fish until it flakes with a fork.
- Don't cross-contaminate. Keep raw fish and cooked fish separately.
- Thaw fillets in the refrigerator, in the microwave or under cold running water. Food defrosted in the microwave should be cooked immediately. Other thawed fish should be used within one to two days.
- Undercooking fish can be risky, while overcooking can result in a unpalatable product.
- Fish is generally low in fat and very tender. Moist heat cooking methods are unnecessary. Methods that develop flavor, such as broiling, baking or frying, are preferred. You can also marinate your fish using 20 Gauge Fish and Game Sauce.
- Fish may be safely preserved by proper smoking procedures.
- After cleaning the fish, cut it into uniform pieces. Do not allow fish to stand un-refrigerated for more than two hours.
- Salt is a preservative. Fish must be salted in the proper brine solution for an appropriate length of time. Generally, soaking the fish in a strong brine (1 cup salt/7 cups water) for 1 hours is adequate.
- After salting, the fish must be heated to an internal temperature of 160ºF and held at this temperature for at least 30 minutes during the smoking cycle.
- Store smoked fish in the refrigerator if it is to be used within two weeks.
- For long-term storage, smoked fish should be frozen. It also may be preserved by following current pressure canning recommendations.
- This document is NCR 526, published
by NDSU in cooperation with NCR Educational
Materials Project, North Dakota State University,
Fargo, ND 58105. Publication date: April 1994.
- Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Program
Assistant, NDSU Extension Service; Martin
Marchello, Professor, Department of Animal and
Range Sciences, NDSU; and Pat Beck, Nutrition
Specialist, NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota
State University, Ag. Communications, Box 5655,
Morrill Hall Fargo, ND 58105-5655.
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