An Outdoor View: Handle with care

Author’s note: First of a two-part series, this column was first published by the Clarion on Sept. 3, 2004.

A common mistake hereabouts is to freeze more fish than you’re able to use or give away.

Your family may have started out liking it, but now they say they’re “tired of fish.” Pressed for details, they say the fish tastes “fishy.” When you continue to feed them fish, your kids leave home years earlier than expected, a mixed blessing.

One day while you’re piling more fish in your bulging freezer — hey, it’s fishing season — you notice that you’re burying last year’s fish. In a surge of generosity, you give last year’s fish to local friends and relatives. Hurt by their underwhelming response, you vow to never give them fish again.

You resort to taking boxes of frozen fish on visits Outside, where people will appreciate it. On a trip this summer, you’re loading fish into Mom’s chest freezer when you find packages of your fish already there. You scrape away a half-inch of frost and see “Sockeye 1997.” Asked why she didn’t eat that fish years ago, Mom says, “I’m saving it for a special occasion, Dear.”

In the final stage of your dilemma, you notice that people are running and hiding when they see you coming.

And all because you didn’t take proper care of your fish.

It’s not always easy to take care of fish. Keeping it clean and cold is of little concern when the bite is on, or when it’s all you can do to stay on your feet, or when you’re “chumming.” Yet, on the water is where the stage is set for bad-tasting fish. Between hook and plate, a lot of things can go wrong.

You don’t hear it talked about much, but countless tons of halibut and salmon go to waste each year. By “waste,” I mean what we put in our freezers that we never get around to eating. The stuff that, despite our intentions to eat it, ends up in the garbage.

Nobody likes to waste fish. You can help reduce this waste by learning how to properly care for fish. In the process, you’ll vastly improve the quality of your fish.

Try giving yourself an attitude check. If you look at fish as a big, dirty job that’s best gotten over with quickly, the end product won’t be pretty. If you see fish as delicious, nutritious food that will be enjoyed for many months, the result will vastly improved. You’ll find that you get almost as much enjoyment out of taking care of your fish as you do catching it.

Too often, we treat fish more like garbage than food. For example, we commonly put them in a “cooler” without ice, a fish box or a plastic bag. To put this another way, we often allow fish, which are highly susceptible to spoilage from bacterial growth, to marinate for hours in a warm, bacteria-infested bath of slime, blood and partially digested stomach contents. We don’t do this with any other food, and we shouldn’t do it with fish.

According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s handbook, “Handling Halibut,” “Fish that are held uncovered, exposed to sunlight and wind, will dehydrate and warm rapidly. Bacterial spoilage and deterioration due to enzymatic action is hastened as temperatures rise. A fish held at 50 degrees F will spoil five times faster than one kept at 32 F.”

The temperature of halibut when taken from the water usually ranges from 40 to 55 F. The temperature of the Kenai River can exceed 50 F in summer. At 50 degrees, fish quality deteriorates rapidly.

A fish begins to decompose, or “go bad,” the instant it dies. At the moment we kill it, we assume the responsibility for handling it in a respectful manner until it becomes food on our table. It’s an obligation not to be taken lightly.

Then again, I don’t think we should be grim about it. Call me strange, but when I’m cleaning fish, I feel happy and thankful.

Next week: Advice on proper care and storage of fish.

■ ■ ■

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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