Being able to consume a feed of fish you've caught yourself is one of the simple pleasures of being a fisho. Given the price of premium seafood is astronomical to say the least, it really is sacrilege to let it go to waste and not aim to get the best possible result from it. One neglectful step of catch care and preparation can significantly impact the quality of your fish meal, and have the flesh discoloured and tasting like a wet sock, and even inedible.
It goes without saying that if you want the best possible result on the dinner plate with your hard-won catch then some TLC is required at all stages of the handling, cleaning and storage after your fish has hit the deck. While catch care and preparation can vary somewhat between species, here are a few broad points to consider when you're next keeping fish for the table.
So you've decked a table-worthy fish and intend to keep it. Some species of fish, particularly larger ones like snapper, tuna etc., can require brain spiking, or as it is better-known iki jime. This entails putting a spike directly into the fish’s brain causing instant death. By destroying the brain, and even the spinal cord, this prevents a reflex action from happening, and stops the build-up of lactic acid which can impact on the flavour of the flesh. Certain fish will also require immediate bleeding and gutting before being placed on ice. The quicker the fish is chilled down inside and out the better.
Having the correct means on hand to store your fish is all-important, and ideally storage should be of the appropriate size where fish don't have to be overly bent or half hanging out to fit in. Be mindful when filling your esky with fish not to crush the softer fleshed species with heavy fish on top of them. Likewise any fish with a lot of blood or significant slime/smell should be stored separately if possible so you don't cross contaminate the other species.
A lot of gun anglers live by the rule that you can never have enough ice on hand for fish storage. Make sure your fish are evenly covered, and the best way to do this is to make an ice slurry with the addition of saltwater. A good slurry can get amazingly cold and keep fish in prime shape. When you don't have ice on hand the next most practical method is to keep your catch in the shade in cool seawater, and even keep them alive for as long as possible if viable.
A handy tip before leaving the water if you intend to clean your fish away from the ocean, is to consider filling up a container with seawater for rising your fish and fillets in. It'll add immensely to the flavours achieved compared to washing them in freshwater. Also some fish can be scaled with the use of a scaling bag towed behind your boat to save a lot of time later on, which also serves to remove the slime from your catch. This is particularly popular in southern states on KG whiting, squid and the like. Read up on the rules surrounding fish cleaning in your state, as in some states you can't do this while at sea.
If you can't fillet and bag your fish within a reasonable timeframe after capture, then as a bare minimum you should be taking out the gut and gills to remove a lot of bacteria, and in the case of the gut, also unwanted flavours that could leach into the flesh. Ideally however you should be looking to fillet up you catch the same day it's caught for the best result.
Having a functional fish cleaning station set up at your house is a dream in this situation. I think we've all cleaned fish on range of average surfaces, and things are so much easier when you have a purpose-built surface at the correct height, and one that's relatively hygienic and has wash down facilities.
With the correct tools on hand, and knives perfect for the species you're cleaning, then you should be achieving nice even fillets, and then storing these fillets out of direct sunlight as you do them. Be careful not to melt your fillets in the hot sun at this point, as soft fleshed species can suffer quickly with exposure.
If you decide to eat your fish straightaway you're done, and it's time to kick back with a cold beverage and get some fillets sizzling in the pan! Those storing fillets in the freezer should look to vacuum seal them if possible.
While vacuum sealing does cost additional dollars for the dedicated bags used, it extends the shelf life and taste of your fish far beyond other means, and the thicker bags used and lack of air in the bags seem to reduce freezer burn. Any protection you can give your fillets from direct contact with the edge of your freezer is also a smart move to stop 'burning' or 'drying' of the flesh.
Some forethought with how you handle and store your catch will go a long way to ensuring you have moist, sweet-tasting fillets when you sit down to enjoy a fish meal. As fishos we really are privileged to have access to top tucker like this, and a basic yet effective routine with catch care and preparation like this will ensure you get the most from it each time!