How to Make the Fish you catch Taste Great

Let’s face it. There is nothing better than a fish fry. This is especially true if it contains fish that you caught. However, there may be times when they aren’t “tasty.”

So what’s the problem? The fish species, breading and cooking oil hasn’t changed. Most likely it’s ice or lack thereof. During warm days many anglers don’t properly ice their fish. In fact, some don’t even ice them at all. One hot June day I was launching my boat for an evening of perch fishing. As I readied my craft at the dock, two anglers tied up beside me. They proudly announced they had limited out on yellow perch.

They held up two 5-gallon buckets filled with jumbo yellow perch. However, the fish were turning bleach white. Apparently, they had sat in the sun all day in 80-degree heat without ice—what a waste of good fish. Yes, an angler can keep live fish on a stringer when the water and air temperature is cool in spring and fall. And, a boat with a good livewell keeps fish alive. However, for bank anglers and boat fishermen without livewells, think ice, and lots of it.

I have been on charter boats where the captain throws in 10 pounds of ice cubes in the bottom of the cooler. At the end of the day, all six clients limited out. Most fish were from the ’03 year-class. This means big walleyes, at 6 to 10 pounds. The fish in the bottom of the casket-sized ice chest were nice and cool, however, the top half weren’t. They were insulated from the ice by the thick layers of fish beneath them. Smart captains will add an extra bag of ice when the cooler is half-filled.

Now, ice jugs are a favorite for many. You can fill plastic, 1-gallon milk containers with water and freeze them. However, after the ice starts melting inside the jug, a layer of water forms between the ice and the plastic jug, reducing the cooling effect.

To maximize coolness, add a naked block of ice, and nothing around it. This is super-cold and lasts much longer than ice cubes. To make your own ice blocks, buy the more expensive plastic paint buckets in the 1- and 2-gallon size. Fill with water and freeze for at least a couple days before using. When at your location, dip the bucket in the warmer lake water a couple times or more to free the ice from the pail. Dump the ice chunk from the bucket into the cooler.

You can also add a quart or two of lake water to an ice chest. When the water comes into contact with the ice block, it becomes very cold. As fish are added to the cooler, ice water seeps around them. More water may be needed if the ice chest is becoming full with fish. When done properly, all the fish from top to bottom are kept chilled.

Ice is critical for fish containing a higher fat content, such as trout, salmon, catfish, etc. Heat quickly accelerates the decomposition of the fat. When eating these poorly-iced fish, a “fishy” taste and smell becomes evident. While walleyes, yellow perch, bluegills and crappies have a low fat content, their fillets will become softer and less tasty if not iced sufficiently. When the fish are iced well, not only are they cold and safe, but they also are firmer and easier to fillet later.

When the chilled fish arrives at the cutting board, fillet them in the normal manner. Skin the fillet and locate the lateral line midway between the back and rib cage meat. It is a visible dark line containing nerves and tiny bones. At the tail end of the fillet, make 1-inch-long cuts on each side of the lateral line. Hold the fillet with your thumb on the lateral line. Pull one half of the fillet free from the lateral line; some call this “zippering” the fillet. Switch hands and do the same to the other side so the lateral line is removed from the meat. Now there are two pieces of fish. Most people don’t remove the lateral line on regular- sized panfish. However, on big perch, larger gamefish and walleyes, remove the lateral line. While filleting, make certain to place the fish pieces into ice water if you are not cooking them immediately.

With large walleyes and other fish high in fat, lay the fillet on the board with the skinned side facing up. Sharpen the fillet knife and remove the thin layer of meat that is either red or dark. For fish with an even higher fat content, remove the fat along the top of the fillet and around the rib cage.

Perch and panfish are a favorite for many because they are thin and fry up crispy. Some people don’t like to eat large walleyes, because when fried the thick fillets are soft in the middle and they don’t get as crispy.

To turn a large fillet into crunchy, thin pieces, simply cut the back piece into strips. Make them about 2 to 3 inches long and no more than a 1/2-inch thick. After breading and frying, the pieces can swell to almost double in thickness. Now, the thin walleye pieces are like eating fried clam strips or panfish fillets.

If the fish are to be eaten the next day, refrigerate. But when freezing fillets, a vacuum-sealing machine removes all the air from the package, increasing the time the fish can be kept frozen. For those without this option, put the fish in a Ziploc freezer bag. Place a drinking straw in one corner of the bag. Zip the bag from the opposite side all the way across until it is tight against the straw. Place the straw in your mouth. Suck the air out while pulling the straw free and zip the bag closed. This is fairly close to a vacuum seal. Warning: Don’t place the straw’s tip against the fish at any time or in any water that is in the bag. For the faint of heart, simply hand-squeeze the air from the bag before closing. Also, first write the number of fish, species and date on the bag. You can then fill the freezer bags with water if you want. Later, don’t use hot or warm water to thaw them when you’re ready to take them out. Run cold tap water on any frozen fish fillets.

Try these easy-to-do tips this fishing season so you can consistently make your fried fish taste great.