Survival Update

The world is yours

You Caught A Fish – Now What?

If you’re a fishin’ fool like me you might take catching and cooking these aquatic creatures for granted. I grew up fishing and learned tips from my aunts and uncles as well as my parents and grandparents. Everybody had an opinion and their own way of doing things.

For all you tadpoles out there new to the unsurpassed joys of fishing, welcome to the world of self-sufficiency. Before long, you’ll be angling with the best of them.

Don’t tell anyone I told you but fishing ain’t that hard. Just look at the people doing it – like me.

Of course, there’s fishing and then there’s catching. While reeling one in can be thrilling (and reeling in one after another even more so!), it’s still a bit of a hike from creel to meal, if you catch my drift.

Since I was a small fry myself, all my relatives weighed in with best practices for turning a fresh-caught fish into frying pan or freezer fare. And now, Cherished Readers, I will share with you the distillation of all that ancestral knowledge.


When I go lake fishing with my plain old Zebco reel and my beat-up old rod, an aluminum bucket with holes in it and a rope tied to the handle always goes with me. This inner sleeve fits inside an outer aluminum bucket that holds water and is a prison for captured fish.

Keeping fresh-caught fish alive until cleaning them is the best way to go. They go directly to jail, do not pass ‘Go’ and do not get $200. Instead, they must be killed and butchered as any game meat is.

There are several ways to kill fish. The most humane ways provide speedy dispatch (as we used to call it). Either swiftly slice off the head, severing the cranial nerve, or poke a pointed awl or Phillips screwdriver into the brain. Some people bludgeon the brain area with a ball-peen hammer or some such heavy, blunt object (a rock, for example). Of course, all fish will die after being removed from the water, but letting them asphyxiate is deemed the least humane choice.

Removing the head from a fish you are cleaning is optional and a matter of personal taste. Some people prefer to cook a fish whole and/or leave the fins on which crisp up with cooking. Fish eyes are considered a delicacy around the world.

As anyone who has tangled with a fish knows, they have sharp fins that fan out to poke predators like us. Fish can flip and flop for a long time out of the water and letting them malinger is considered bad form. Better the speedy dispatch. Always take hold of a fish from its top, pressing its back spines and covering the gills with your hand.

If you are squeamish about picking up a fish that is still alive or simply want to protect your manicure, wear a cloth garden glove that you don’t mind getting fish guts on the hand holding down the fish.

Invest in a really sharp filet knife with a long, thin, curved blade. Keep this tool away from kids. It should be sharp enough to come with a protective sheath. While one hand holds the fish with its belly on a cutting board, the other hand fits the sharp knife behind the gill slit and, with one quick motion, a decisive downward slice severes the head.

Next, trim away the gill and belly fins. Slice open the belly from the anus forward. Pull away the fold of skin and use the knife to scrape all the innards out. If you see a cluster of yellow globs those are eggs (roe).

Stand the fish upright and carefully slice away the back dorsal fin. Some people leave this fin on to remove after cooking since the meat next to these bones is buttery in texture and highly prized.

Use a fish scaler tool or a serrated knife to remove all the fish scales. Hold the fish down with one hand and start at the tail on one side, sliding the scaler with some force to pry up the scales like shingles off a roof. It may take a few attempts to remove the first few scales but then the job should become easier. Turn the fish and scale the other side. Remember to scale the belly and between the tail and dorsal fin.

When finished, rinse the cleaned and gutted fish inside and out under flowing water. Be sure all intestinal tissue has been removed and check for overlooked scales. Drain the fish and pat dry.

To cook later, package cleaned fish flat in a plastic gallon-size freezer bag. If you stack the fish they will stick to each other, making them harder to separate when thawing later.

Now, some people will tell you to scale the fish earlier on in the process. Quite honestly, it don’t make no never mind, as we used to say.

What you’re angling for (get it?) is a raw, scaled, gutted, and optionally-definned fish that is ready for the griddle or preserving.