ROD, KNIFE AND FLAME: CLEANING AND PREPARING FRESH CATCH AT YOUR CAMPSITE
Catching fish is satisfying in and of itself, but nothing compares to cooking and eating a fish that you just caught and sharing it with your mates. Before you can do that, however, you’ve got to do the dirty work of cleaning and getting the fish ready to cook. With a few tools at hand and a little elbow grease, you’ll have those filets ready for the pan or grill in no time.
HEADING BACK TO CAMP
Once you’ve caught your fish and are ready to head back to camp, keep them fresh by placing them in a bucket of water or better yet in an esky full of ice. This will retain the flavour and keep the fish from spoiling. Back at your campsite, find a flat surface that is somewhat out of the way that is big enough to work on. You may want to lay out some old newspapers, as this will make your workspace easier to clean. If you were lucky enough to come back with a whole stringer of beauties, layered newspaper can be removed a few pages at a time to reveal a clean work space for each successive fish.
At the minimum, you’ll need a sharp filleting knife, a fish scaler and a bucket, along with paper towels or rags to wipe down your cleaning area. Have plenty of bottled or jugged water or a fresh water source available for keeping your tools, your workspace and yourself clean during and after this process, as it can get a bit messy!
Choose a filet knife that is made from stainless steel with non-corrosive properties so it will last through many years of use. The blade should be flexible, no matter the length. Knives will often come in a pack with 2 or more sizes, making it easier to choose a knife to fit your particular fish species, however most fish caught while casual camping will require a 6 or 7.5” blade, so having one of these on hand should suit you fine. Make sure your knife has a comfortable handle, which is especially important if you’re filleting many fish in a row. If your knife didn’t already come with a cover, make sure to get one of these as well to keep it protected from unnecessary wear and tear while it’s being stored.
GUTTING AND CLEANING
Next, on to the cleaning itself. You’ll want to make sure the fish is no longer alive, so a quick whack with a mallet will ensure you don’t get into trouble here. Remove the scales by taking your fish scaler or paring knife and run it along the length of the fish from the tail to the head, avoiding being stuck by spiky fins. Remove as many of the scales as you can, and then rinse the fish under cold water. To gut the fish, take your fillet knife and slice along the belly from the anal fins to the bottom of the head. With your hand or a spoon, scoop out the innards and discard in a bucket or bag, or toss into a nearby river if there is one adjacent.
TO SKIN OR NOT TO SKIN
Some fish have skin that you’ll want to remove before you cook it, and others’ skin is perfectly satisfying to eat. If you’re going to remove the skin, slice off any spines at the top of the fish, as well as cutting off side fins. Make a cut at the bottom of the throat, grab its head with one hand and body with the other and pull the head up and back until the skin begins to peel loose. The fish’s skin should follow along with the head, pulling off almost like a banana peel. Discard the head and skin. If you have chosen to leave the skin on and you’re going to cook the fish whole you can leave the head on for presentation, or you can feel free to remove it. Place your knife along the gill line and slice down. Do the same on the other side and twist the head off and discard.
ON TO THE FILLET
The species of fish you have caught will somewhat determine what type of preparation you’ll prefer. Smaller fish are best prepared as fillets. Medium-sized fish can be filleted or cooked whole, and larger fish can be filleted or cooked whole, but when camping it may be easier to handle and cook if you cut the fish into steaks.
To fillet a fish, hold the fish down sturdily on its side with one hand and with the other, slide your knife along the edge of the fish’s spine so that the knife is perpendicular with the work surface.
Work the knife through the length of the fish, making sure to keep it against the spine to ensure you’re getting the thickest fillet you can.
If you’ve got a large catch and you want to cook these as steaks, follow all the same instructions, but make repeating cuts at around 1-1.5” perpendicular to the fish’s body. This will provide nice thick pieces
Now it’s time to cook! Use your favourite grilled or pan-fried fish recipe and bon appetit.
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