From Spear to Table #1 – Care for your catch

Welcome to “From Spear to Table”, a new series about what happens after the shot. Under this head line I will share tips, tricks and recipes helping you bring the fish from the spear to the table in the best possible way. In this first post we start from the beginning with how to properly “care for your catch”.

To care for your catch is not only about making sure that you get the best eating quality out of your fish. It’s also about respect. Every time we shot a fish we are ending a life. We shouldn’t forget that. The best way to honor that life is to make sure that we make the most out of the fish and use it to increase the culinary happiness and health of ourselves and our loved ones.

The key to bringing home high quality fish meat can be summarized in four steps; kill – bleed – gut – cool.

Kill

One advantage of spearfishing over rod fishing is that the fish doesn’t end up flapping around on the floor getting all bruised up. Bruises accumulate blood which affects the meat quality negatively. Still, unless you stone the fish with a perfect shot it will thrust around on the spear under great stress. The more and longer the fish is under stress the more lactic acid it will build up in it’s muscles, again affecting the eating quality negatively. To leave the fish alive to slowly die on the stringer or on the floor of the boat is unacceptable, for humane as well as quality reasons.

What we need to do is to finish the fish off quickly and humanely. There are various ways to kill a fish. The easiest may be to club it on the head. As spearfisherman snorkling around in the water we may lack the means to do so effectively. Instead we may use a technique called Iki Jime, it’s a Japanese term for a method where you stab the fish in the hindbrain causing immediate brain death. This is a quick and very humane way to finish off the fish while at the same time improving the meat quality.

To perform iki jime you need a sharp pointy knife or a pike that you insert through the skull into the brain. I use my dive knife. The location of the brain is slightly different in different species. For a guide to the location in some popular fish you can refer to www.ikijime.com. But generally the stabbing point is on top of the head slightly behind the eyes. insert the knife and give it a jerk back and forth to make sure you hit the point. When done correctly the fish’s fins flare, just to go motionless in the following moment. It’s now clinically dead. Though, the heart will still beat for a short period of time, allowing you to complete the second important step.

Bleed

Blood is a growing ground for bacteria and contribute to that foul “fishy” taste you may encounter in poorly cared for fish. You want as little of it as possible left in your meat. Bleeding leaves a higher quality fresher flavored meat. Once you have successfully brained the fish you bleed it by cutting open the blood rich gills.

Open the gill plate, insert your knife and cut down, slitting the throat of the fish more or less. You will see blood pumping out in the water. The confirmation that you have done it right is that you end up with an evenly colored fillet without blood stains.

Gut

Next step is to gut the fish. Just like blood, the guts is a growing ground for bacteria and foul flavor, so you better get rid of it sooner rather than later.
Insert your knife at the anal opening and cut up the belly to between the pelvic fins, make sure not to cut yourself, insert you finger(s) and pull out the guts. If you want to save time in the water you can save this step for later, as long as you move quickly to the next step. But if you are going to leave the fish on a stringer for some time do gut it right away.

Cool

The final step is to cool the fish. The quicker you are able to cool the fish down the better it will keep its freshness and quality. If you are boat diving bring a cooler on the boat. If shore diving keep it in the car.

Catch kept in ice slurry
Poor man’s cooler

The best and quickest way to cool down a fish is with an ice slurry. The slurry is made from 2 parts ice and 1 part salt water and is kept in a cooler box. The salt in the water increases the cooling effect and the water itself has a much higher contact with the flesh than ice alone would, speeding up the cooling process. Ice slurry in a high quality cooler box can keep you fish perfectly cool for trips over several days.

The gear and method you use to cool down your catch becomes increasingly important the longer you are away. If you’re whole trip from leaving to coming back home is just a few hours you can get away with a poor man’s cooler. it’s not nearly as efficient as an Ice slurry in a proper cooler box. But for a short trip it will do. Obviously the more ice blocks you have the more efficient it will be.

Keep the catch for later

When you get home you need to handle the fish according to how you are planning to use it. If you’re going to eat it within one or maximum two days you can keep it in the fridge. Ideally in an air tight zip lock bag on an ice block to keep it as cool as possible. If you’re not planning on making the fish any of your next meals you better freeze it.
Bigger fish you probably want to fillet before you freeze them. Smaller fish that you cook whole you can freeze as they are, assuming that you gutted and scaled them already. Pack the fish or the fillets as air tight as possible before freezing. If you’re freezing several fillets together you may want to separate them with some plastic film to avoid that they freeze into a big block.

Lean fish keep for about 6 months in the freezer. Fat fish for half that time.