When we were kids my father had one simple rule when it came to fishing: you catch them, you clean them.
They also has to be the right size to fit into a 12-inch cast iron frying pan. Anything smaller, he encouraged us to release. Any thing larger, well, I don’t recall catching anything that was too big for the frying pan. I guess he was sort of ahead of his time when it came to catch and release. I also know that a lot of fish got fried up in that old frying pan. Oddly enough, I still have it and use it.
The practice of catch-and-release fishing certainly gained popularity with an ever-increasing number of anglers over the past 25 or so years. However, I’m not so sure that’s altogether true anymore. More and more of the anglers I talk to say they are keeping at least part of their catch on a regular bases. I suppose it’s in part because of the cost of putting food on the table, and also because of the quality, or rather, questionable quality of the fish being sold in grocery stores these days. Much of the fish sold in stores is either farmed here in Canada or imported from Asia. Much of that is either renamed or relabelled, so you can’t really be certain what you are eating.
I used to think it was more sporting to use the lightest tackle possible to catch fish – you know, give them a sporting chance. Now I use heavier tackle and bring fish in as quickly as possible in order to release them with as little stress as possible. My ideas have changed.
Common sense, as well as scientific data show that the longer fish are out of the water, the more they become stressed and that a minimal amount of handling not only reduces the amount of stress but also the risk of physical injury due to struggling and loss of body slime. Holding fish out of the water also puts stress on a fish’s inner body and organs which are, in part, held in place by the external force of water pressure. It is therefore important when removing the hook to keep a fish on the surface but still in the water. Any fish displaying signs of exhaustion or stress should be resuscitated by holding the fish with its head pointing into the current. In still waters, fish can be gently moved back and forth to increase the amount of oxygenated water passing through the gills. Only when the fish demonstrates a stable equilibrium and ability swim on its own, should it be safely released.
When you do decide to keep a fish, always make sure to dispatch and clean it immediately. Having dispatched the fish, remove both the head and entrails, puncture the bladder, and drop the guts overboard into deep water. Shrimp and a variety of other sub-aquatic creatures will feed on the waste materials and there will be nothing left by the end of the day. Make sure to wash the fish thoroughly and place it on ice in your cooler. Keeping a fish on ice will help ensure it stays fresh, especially if you are going to be fishing for a while longer.
Having said all of this, one of my favourite meals, always has and always will be, a shore lunch. All you need is a skillet, a fish, a bit of milk to coat the outside of the fish and a bit of butter to fry it, a few sliced potatoes (boiled up the night before with the skins left on), a can of baked beans (which somehow taste better when you’re out doors) and, voila, lunch is ready.
I don’t know if it’s being outdoors in the fresh air or just the whole experience of preparing and cooking your meals in a cast iron frying pan on an open fire, but somehow things seem to taste a whole lot better when you get to dine beside a lake or stream somewhere with birds singing, a blue sky up above and the sound of water bubbling over rocks or lapping against the shore.