Congratulations! You have caught a nice stringer of fish and are ready to turn them into a great meal.
The first step is dispatching the fish if you have not already done so. The two recommended ways are to pith the fish by inserting a knife into the fish's brain. A short, heavy knife blade is ideal. Obviously, care is needed to prevent cutting yourself. The second method is using a heavy wooden club to deliver a quick, sharp blow to the top of the fish’s head. Both methods result in quickly dispatching the fish.
Once the fish are dispatched, you will need a few other pieces of equipment:
- A sharp knife, preferably with a long, thin, flexible blade;
- A cutting board. Cutting boards can be as simple as a small piece of plywood, or as elaborate as a nylon board. More than a few pan fish have been processed on the blade of a canoe paddle.
- Plastic bags, or other storage containers.
Optional equipment includes:
- A fish-handling glove. These specially made gloves provide a much firmer grip on fish (some are knife-proof as well); and
- A fish scaler to help remove fish scales.
Before you begin processing the fish, you should think about how you plan on preparing them, and to whom you may be serving them.
Boneless, skinless filets can be served in a variety of ways and are preferred by most people. Whole fish (with either head on or off) are more suitable for baking and make an interesting food presentation.
There are numerous resources available to illustrate how to filet and skin a fish. The key to fileting fish is using a sharp knife, and practice. Panfish are the perfect fish to practice on.
Similarly, there are a lot of resources available to illustrate how to clean and scale a fish. A fish scaler is very handy for removing scales. Removing scales while the fish is immersed in running water will help contain the scales. Soaking the fish for a few minutes in a mild vinegar solution will also help loosen them. Eating whole fish will require you to carefully eat around the bones. However, you will get more meat from a fish cooked this way than if you filet them.
If you have caught more fish than you can eat fresh, you will need to store them in some manner. Freezing is generally the easiest. Freezer storage bags or vacuum packing both work well. In addition, because fish are susceptible to freezer burn, some experts recommend that fish be frozen in water to ensure that the flesh is not exposed to air.
Freezer packages should be carefully marked with the date and species of fish. This will allow you to manage the contents of your freezer more efficiently and avoid discovering a package of some unknown contents. Eat frozen fish as soon as practical. There are few things as disappointing as going to all that work to catch and prepare fish, only to have it get freezer burned and inedible because you forgot about it in the back of your freezer!