fish handling

Fish handling the right way is a very important topic for wildlife conservationists and sports fishermen everywhere. Proper fish handling techniques aim to minimize the impact on released fish and respectfully process and utilize harvested fish. 

Story by Dave Atcheson & Photos by Trout Unlimited Alaska

Affluence in many traditional native cultures is not measured in banknotes or bonds, but rather in more tangible riches, such as those provided by the land and sea. Even today, in many villages a smokehouse full of freshly caught fish represents greater value than a bank account or stock portfolio. This is a virtue many of us, hunters and gatherers—and yes, fishers—can appreciate. For there is something distant and profound, shared across generations and cultures, that compels us to satisfy our basic needs, providing an inexorable satisfaction in putting away our own food, and doing so completely by our own means.

Here in Alaska, amidst one of the few remaining strongholds of wild salmon, harvesting this incoming bounty is an annual ritual. Each year anglers from across the state and around the globe descend upon our streams and rivers, leaving not only with a wealth of experience but with a treasure trove of some of the freshest, most delectable seafood available.

fish handling

Be sure to handle your fish delicately while you are posing for photos!

Respectfuly harvested resource

Here is where we might also stop and take a lesson from native culture and honor the fish that has given its life for us. That means, in turn, honoring the land and taking care of the vital habitat that has produced this bounty. Sticking to existing trails, for instance, and not disturbing streamside vegetation; not walking through redds and spawning nests; and always packing out every item, all refuse, that was packed in. It also means targeting more abundant species and taking proper care of the fish we do choose to harvest and not letting it go to waste. It means taking only what we need and processing it properly, so that come springtime it is in nearly as good condition and tastes almost as delicious as the day it was caught. It’s not difficult. The secret to good quality all starts when the fish is first hooked.

It might not seem like it when fighting an enraged sockeye, but that fish is an extremely delicate food and needs to be handled very gently once it reaches shore. That means not allowing it to flop around and keeping its struggle to an absolute minimum.

Steps to maintain high quality meat

It’s best to dispatch the fish right away with a sharp whack to the skull. Long ago, it was common practice to keep fish alive on a stringer, the thinking being that the fish would remain fresher the longer it lived. This, however, is a complete fallacy. Fish, like any other animal, build up lactic acid with an increase in stress, which when released leads to a breakdown of protein in the muscle and leads to a much lower quality of meat. It’s the same case with game meat, and why hunters want a quick, clean kill.

Once the fish is immobilized, it should never be picked up by the tail, as this will break the vertebrae, which will in turn cause what is commonly referred to as the “bloodline,” the jellylike substance which runs along the backbone, to leach into the meat. This bloodline in reality serves as a kidney function. The enzymes it contains will immediately begin to affect a fish’s delicate flesh and its flavor.

The next step in taking care of your catch is to immediately bleed the fish. This is best accomplished by cutting the artery that runs between the gills. This should be done right away, while the heart is still pumping.

On ice as soon as possible

Then it’s on to the ice, perhaps the most important and most often overlooked step in maintaining a quality product. Icing the fish as soon as possible will keep your catch firm and fresh. The colder the better. On extended trips, I use frozen milk jugs, so as not to end up with slush, which can cause fish to turn soft. Another option is a rack built on the bottom of the cooler, which allows a place for water to drain and collect. If hiring a charter, always check to make sure they plan on bleeding and icing your catch.

If keeping the fish whole, which I occasionally do with lake-caught trout or kokanee, I will remove the viscera and the gills right away. Both contain enzymes that can have a negative impact on the meat. In most cases, however, with large fish such as salmon, we are filleting. When keeping salmon always start with the brightest, firmest fish possible. It’s common to hear folks refer to salmon that are no longer silvery as “smokers,” but smoking a subpar fish does absolutely nothing to improve its quality. I am a firm believer in the adage: “Junk in the smoker, junk out of the smoker.”

Fillet the right way

fish handling

Process your fish on a clean surface with a fresh water source nearby.

When filleting, I want a good, level, and clean surface. That means really looking over a boat-launch cleaning station. Whether at the Homer or Seward harbor or along the Kenai River, take a close look at the accumulation of slime and guts, and the flies that accompany it. It does not take long, especially on a warm day, for the filth and bacteria to build up. That’s why if I am going to use a public cleaning station, I bring a spray bottle with bleach solution and scouring pad.

If I have only caught one or two fish, I’m able to be extremely careful with the fillets. That means once the fillets are removed from the body, keeping the exposed meat completely dry. That’s right, I don’t rinse them, just gently wipe them off with a rag. Less water, less chance of oxidation, less chance of freezer burn. Unfortunately, when harvesting a large number of fish, as is the case with dipnetting, this is not possible. If blood or slime soils a fillet it should rinsed and then dried as much as possible before freezing.

Make use of every part of your catch

Honoring the fish also means utilizing as much of it as possible. Even the best filleters leave a lot of meat on the bone. After filleting, many folks scrape the remaining carcass clean with a spoon, removing an incredible amount of excess flakey goodness, which works great for salmon burgers. On a large fish, such as a Chinook, the leftover carcass can simply be seasoned and thrown on the grill. In recent years, I’ve been keeping my leftover sockeye and coho carcasses and smoking them, then using them to make smokey fish stock, which I then freeze in three-cup increments: an incredible, very versatile, and delicious element in soups or to simply cook rice with.

Freeze Fish Quickly for Storage

If freezing fish for an extended period, nothing beats vacuum packing. Wrapping fish in plastic wrap before placing it in the vacuum bag will create better suction and ensure a better seal. Once the fish is sealed and ready, spread the packages out on the freezer shelf, and only freeze a few packages at a time. Leave the rest in the refrigerator until those in the freezer are frozen solid. This allows the fish to freeze faster, a key to avoiding, or at least putting off, freezer burn. Remember, the quicker a fish is frozen, the better. It is recommended fish be frozen in two hours or less. And always label what it is and when it was frozen. Once the packages are frozen solid, I will stack them in the freezer, but am careful to place a section of newspaper between each package. This will prevent them from sticking together and possibly being punctured.

These few simple practices will assure quality and will allow us to better honor the fish we catch.

For more information on this topic, as well as recipes and advice on canning and smoking, check out one of the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Offices.

Good luck fishing and good eating!

Trout Unlimited’s mission is to protect, reconnect, and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. Go to to learn about our work in Alaska.


For more wildlife conservation reading, check out Fish Alaska’s entire Conservation blog.