Call it old school, un-PC or connecting with my inner Paleo, but I still believe that anglers should eat some of their catch. After all, the circle of life in undeniable and besides, there has been a resurgence in interest in both fishing and hunting as of late due to consumers desiring to know where their food comes from. I, for one, am all for it!
Eating our catch is at fishing’s very origins; sport fishing is a recent development. “Catch and release” sport fishing is even more recent and the trend went mainstream as a direct result of bass tournament fishing. Event organizers in the 1970’s realized that for their fledgling sport to succeed, conservation would have to be a theme. These days, competitive anglers get a penalty if they kill a fish and hardly anybody keeps largemouth or smallmouth bass regardless of the circumstances. I believe the right - and delicious - answer lies in selective harvest.
Selective harvest is the concept of choosing which fish to eat and which to release based on a variety of factors including the population dynamics, age/condition of the fish, stocking program, etc. I won’t preach to you; make your own decisions on which fish to keep. But I will ask nicely that you consider each fish you keep carefully rather than wholesale harvest just because you caught it and can. In my personal case, how soon I can consume the fish is also a major factor. I’m not a fan of frozen fish, so if I want to eat fish, I better catch a suitable specimen. Furthermore, if I’m not prepared to adequately handle a harvested fish, I’ll release them all regardless.
If you are planning to harvest fish, a little forethought goes a long way towards quality table fare. My strong preference is to have a cooler with ice on hand, in which case I immediately dispatch the fish and ice it. If it’s a trout or some other fish that I’d cook whole, I’ll remove the gills and entrails prior to icing. In lieu of a cooler full of ice, my second choice is to keep them alive. That’s easy in the big Ranger boat - simply flip on the livewell pumps. Without a livewell of some sort, it’s admittedly tough; a stringer may be your only option, but that is not a great one unless the water is cold.
Speaking of cold water, all other things being equal, fish harvested from cold water are the best eating. Trout harvested from 70 degree water will not be as tasty and firm as the same trout harvested in 45 degree water. If I’m grocery shopping, I’ll seek out cold places to fish. Anything harvested from an 80 degree pond somewhere is not likely to taste great or have firm texture unless it is immediately killed, filleted, and iced, immediately!
When you fillet a fish, prepare by putting ice and water in a large bowl and adding a tablespoon or two of salt. Fillet the fish and remove the ribs, rinse with cold water and place immediately in the salted ice bath for about 15-20 minutes. This will firm up the meat and draw out any remaining blood. Afterwards, rinse again in cold water, lay flat, pat dry, cover and refrigerate until use or freeze it, but we already talked about my disdain for frozen fish which stems directly from knowing how much better fresh fish is in both taste and texture!
Removing the dark red meat that occurs along the lateral line just under the skin of some fish like white bass, is a source of debate. Personally, my rule is to carefully remove it if I’m planning to encase the fillet in something like breading/batter or if I’m cooking it in liquid as I might in a soup or chowder because it can add a muddy taste and odd texture. If the fish fillet will be cooked with direct heat like a grill or seared in a cast iron skillet, the red meat will render and char, yielding a tasty bite. Removing the red meat, which is dark red because it contains more fat and is higher in certain amino acids, means loss of some meat, so I leave it in most cases. It is important to note that the red meat goes rancid faster than the surrounding flesh; remove it if you plan to store your fish very long.
What are some of the best fish to harvest both for food value and conservation? Well, fish that reproduce extremely fast is the obvious answer. White bass and bluegills are good examples, as are crappie in some areas of the country. All of them are super tasty. Land-locked stripers are another good option where they’re found. Brook trout from high mountain streams are prone to over-population and also taste fantastic. I most often cook the little gems whole, minus the head and entrails. Since we started airing cooking segments on Fishful Thinker TV, we get a lot of questions about stocked rainbow trout. It seems many folks don’t like their taste, but want to eat them. Their taste stems from being fed “trout chow” in hatcheries, so if they survive for a few months on a wild diet, they lose that taste. Regardless, I tend to brine or generously rub them with some sort of seasoning or cook them sealed in foil along with other flavorful liquids/herbs/fats.
Hopefully a few of these concepts will resonate with you the next time you earn your place at the top of the food chain!