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The basics: Killing and caring for your catch

So this is the next post in our back to basics series, where we aim to cover some of the bedrock basics of fishing. For a lot of you this probably won’t be a huge amount of use, you’ll already being doing all this anyway. The purpose of these posts is to provide basic information to beginners. While you would expect most fishermen know how to kill and look after their catch, many hours on the water would suggest otherwise. Either that or a lot of fishermen are incredibly lazy! So, here is our take on the best way to kill and look after your catch.

Killing your catch- the gruesome bit

There are a number of ways to dispatch your catch. Selecting the right one depends on the type of fish you are catching and what you want to use it for. Regardless of the type of fish, it’s important that they are killed humanely and efficiently. Despite the ethical motivations for doing this, minimising any stress stress suffered by your fish will improve its eating qualities. It will also improve its use as bait: fresh bait is good bait!

While this will provide a broad overview, every fish species is a little different, but the overall ideas apply to all commonly caught fish such as flathead, salmon, tailor, kingfish, bream, snapper, trout, whiting, tuna, trevally, drummer, blackfish, mullet and garfish.

Fish that don’t need bleeding:

Fish such as flathead, snapper, bream, garfish and whiting, which are some of Australia’s favourite eating fish, can handle all sorts of treatments and still taste good. While bleeding these fish will improve the flavour, most people won’t be able to notice the difference in taste. Personally, I rarely bother bleeding fish like these unless they are large (e.g. big snapper) or I plan to use them for sashimi, in which case I strongly recommend it, but more on that later. Even though these fish can handle being left to die slowly in a bucket and still taste pretty good, you will notice a significant improvement in flavour if you kill them quickly (not to mention the humane arguments for doing so). The way I like to send all these fish to fishy heaven is using a spike. The added bonus is that it’s really simple and QUICK. Fish have a soft spot on their heads – on bream and snapper its near where the “temple” would be. On whiting and flathead it’s in between the eyes, on the top of the head. Its pretty easy to find as you are able to feel it: the place you want to insert the spike will be soft. The exact angle that you want to insert the spike changes a little bit depending on species but in general its an incredibly easy way to kill your catch. To “spike” your fish, you need a spike, which is a sharp metal object (you can buy one, or like me you can make your own by sharpening an old screwdriver). To kill the fish you simply insert the spike into the soft spot which will hopefully take you right to the brain and and the instant humane death of your catch. You’ll know when you have hit the brain because the fins of the fish will stand up and the fish will then go limp. Thats it! Your fish has been humanely dispatched quickly and it will taste a whole lot better for it. An added bonus of spiking is that the fish retain their colour. If you take any pictures of your catch after its been killed they will be far more impressive if the fish have been spiked.

The red circle shows the approximate area where you should spike your fish. The “right” spot is easy to identify because it will be soft (Photo by brian.gratwicke who holds copyright over this image)

Fish that NEED bleeding: For some fish it is essential!

Fish such as kingfish, bonito, tailor and salmon don’t take as kindly to being mistreated. One of the main reasons many people view some of these fish as “inedible” is that they don’t bleed them directly after capture. Unlike the fish above, failure to bleed these fish severely reduces their eating quality, turning what can be very nice fillets into very fishy and bloody fillets that spoil quickly and to put it bluntly aren’t all that nice to eat. I also recommend that you bleed all fish you intend to later sashimi, no matter what the species.

Salmon are one of the easiest fish to handle and dispatch quickly. A technique that achieves this, as well as bleeding them effectively, is to first spike or stun the fish with a firm blow to the head with a club/bat (also sometimes affectionately known as a ‘priest’). This step isn’t strictly neccessary as you will sever the spine later, but does make the job easier as the fish wont be flapping around too much. Then holding the head firmly in one hand, insert your fingers under the gills and quickly snap the neck back. This will crack the spine and sever the main artery. To enable any excess blood to flow out of the fish, put the fish head-first into the bucket, esky or sand. Tailor can also be killed using this method, although it would be unwise to try it with larger specimens. Lee’s dad recently tried the old head snapping technique on a big tailor and ended up with a 3cm gash at the base of his thumb.

For all other species, or if you find snapping the neck of salmon and tailor a little gruesome, you’ll need a knife. The way I like to do it is first of all spike or stun the fish with a priest immediately, to quickly render the fish unconscious. Then I simply make a cut on the underside of the fish where the body meets the head up into the main artery. Take care not to make this cut too far back as you will hit the heart and the fish won’t bleed out as effectively. Then simply put the fish head first into a bucket or bin (depending on the size of the fish) so that the blood can drain from the fish. I usually leave them like that for about ten minutes before putting the fish on ice. Thats all there really is to it and you’ll get a MUCH improved product!

To bleed fish, cut fish here, where the body meets the head of the fish
With tuna, such as these stripies, make a cut just where the head connects to the body

Specialist killing techniques

For sashimi grade Tuna. This PDF lays out all the steps you should follow. It seems like a lot of effort, but if you are spending hundreds of dollars on fuel and killing such a majestic animal, you really should treat it as well as possible.

Caring for your catch-

Once you’ve quickly dispatched of your catch, the next part is making sure that it’s well looked after. There is no point carefully killing your catch only to let it spoil slightly in the sun. The best way to care for your catch is obviously the most labour intensive. An esky, with and ice slurry (made with salt water, very roughly 2-3 parts ice 1 part water) if you’re at the coast, or simply an esky with ice if your fishing in freshwater. By keeping your fish on ice or in an ice slurry, it will be kept as fresh as possible, resulting the the best possible product when you’re back home. Again, if you plan to sashimi your fish, you will need to do this. For large fish, that don’t fit in the esky you’ll need a kill bag, but essentially the process in the same. Now of course lugging around an esky isn’t practical or desirable a lot of the time, so if you can’t do it don’t despair.

If possible, this is how you should be caring for your catch as soon as it has been humanely dispatched. (Photo by adactio who holds copyright over this image)

If you can’t carry an esky, then a little thought should go into how you care for your catch. Obviously leaving them in the sun is the worst possible option and should be avoided at ALL costs (although it does seem a pretty popular method)… So to make the most of your catch in these situations you have to give it a bit of thought. Firstly if you’re only going to be fishing for a couple of hours, where you keep it shouldn’t matter too much. Make sure it’s kept as cool as possible using what you have around you. If you’re on the rocks, find a shaded rock-pool, where the water is relatively cool. A pool with waves regularly washing into it is the best place,  but keep an eye on the bigger waves to make sure they don’t wash your fish away! If you’re on the beach, bury your catch in the sand to protect it from the sun and seagulls. If you’re in an estuary cover it in weed and leave it in the shade. You get the idea. Think about it a little bit and find a protected and cool place to keep your catch. If I’m on the move and there isn’t anywhere nearby to store my catch, I usually keep my catch in a calico bag which I regularly dump in the water to keep wet, which makes my own little portable evaporative cooler. All these techniques work well enough for short trips but most definitely aren’t ideal if your planning on being out on the water for the day without ice and an esky.

If that’s the case, I like to do one of two things. Not keep any fish until I know I’m within about 2-3 hours of heading home to where the fish can be put on ice, or I carry around a woolworths cool bag with a freezer block or two in it.

I know all this can seem like a little bit of effort, but it really is worth it. I don’t know about you, but I LOVE eating fish and spend a lot of money doing it. I also release most of the fish I catch, so I want to make sure what I come home with is in the best condition possible. The extra effort is a very small price to pay for world class seafood. You may even be able to turn a species of fish you once thought of as “bad on the table” into a favourite table fish.

Next up on our covering the basics series, I’ll cover the basics of filleting your catch, from knife selection to the best way to fillet a number of different species. Hopefully the series is of use to some of you 🙂

Cheers and thanks for reading

Hamish (and very minor contributions from Lee) 2011

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18 thoughts on “The basics: Killing and caring for your catch

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  6. That was great. All the fishing shows never show the kill, only the catch and release.
    I might try fishing now, thanks again. I always thought you beat it to death and that put me off.

    1. Hi Luke, thanks for the feedback. Forums can do my head in sometimes…usually a few morons representing a vocal minority in my experience; it can be incredibly hard to sift through the rubbish to find decent information. I’ll pass your comment on to Hamish. Cheers Lee

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    1. I am not 100% on this. I know ammonia is used as a refrigerant in a lot of ice making. However, the amount of ammonia in the ice is likely to be trace amounts at most (if at all) and is highly unlikely to have any spoiling effect. Ammonia is also used as a preservative e.g. So even if there are trace amounts of ammonia in ice, it isn’t going to spoil your fish.


  8. When spiking it is good once the spike is in the brain area move the spike like you are going through the gears on a manual car. 1-2-3-4 job done.

    If trout fishing on a river a white cotton bag will help keep your catch cool. Wet it and hang it from your pack or waders.

    Oh and carry soy sauce and wasabi with you


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