The short answer is fish will last up to five days on ice – but if you don’t gut and bleed the fish first, it will only last a day or two before the flavor and quality of the fish suffer. But that’s not always practical, as Teresa Taylor explains.
You’re on a stack of fat slabs and pulling them in one after another. You know you are going to limit out and probably have enough to cull out the smaller ones, but you are out of space in the live well, and it’s too hot outside to leave them lying on the deck. Can you just toss them in the cooler? The short answer is yes, but how long the fish will last on ice depends on a couple of different factors.
Fish that are properly bled and gutted will last longer than fish taken straight off the hook and placed in the ice chest, but who has time to gut fish when they are biting fast and hard? Well, you don’t have to. Even ungutted fish will last for several hours in an ice-filled cooler with temperatures between 30°, and 40° F. Of course, the quality of the cooler and the actual outside air temperature are going to affect how fast the ice melts, but even a slurry of crushed ice and ice water will protect your fish, as long as it stays at or below 40° F.
There are several things you can do, though, to prolong the shelf life of your fish.
How Long Can You Keep Fish on Ice?
Two major factors affect the storage of fresh fish. The first is whether or not the fish has been bled out correctly. We will describe that in detail below. The second is whether or not the fish has been gutted.
Gutting fish prolongs the quality of the fish meat because it removes harmful bacteria that can quickly multiply in the dead fish, particularly if the temperatures are above freezing. Properly removing the guts can prolong the stability of the meat for up to five days on ice or in the refrigerator. Gutted fish also tastes milder and maintains its texture more than ungutted fish.
It is possible to keep ungutted fish on a fishing trip, but you must bleed them out and place them in a cooler filled with ice cubes. Keep in mind that storing ungutted fish will result in changes in the taste and texture of the fish flesh because the bacteria in the gut will begin to spread through the fish as soon as the fish dies. Ungutted freshly caught fish can have a strong fishy smell, and the meat may taste dirty or strong. If you plan to eat your catch, you need to make sure it is immediately placed in a cold environment. Ungutted fish will last up to two days in a good-quality insulated cooler, as a general rule.
What’s the Best Way to Keep Fish Fresh After Catching?
The best solution to keep your catch fresh is to keep the fish alive. You can do this by placing them in a bucket of cold water or placing them in the live well of your boat. Use an aerator to provide as much air to the fish as possible. This will help keep them alive longer.
If this is not possible, you should be sure you have a way of keeping fish fresh. A cooler full of cubed or crushed ice is best to keep freshly caught fish from spoiling. You should bleed the fish, then place them in the cooler. Gutting them will make them last longer, but you can place ungutted fish in the ice chest as well.
If you take the time to bleed and gut your catch, it will stay fresh much longer when you keep the fish cold. Gutting the fish is necessary to avoid spoiled fish if bacteria escape the fish’s stomach.
How to Bleed Fish Correctly
Why is it necessary to allow fish to bleed out? If the fish dies with blood still flowing through it, the blood will coagulate and pool in the soft fleshy meat. This will change the color and texture of the meat and could ruin the taste.
To humanely bleed out the fish, hit it on the head with a blunt object or stab it at the back of the head with a very sharp object. You want to kill it quickly. After the fish is dead, make deep cuts behind the gills. This will sever the arteries and allow all the blood to drain from the fish. Once the blood stops, rinse the fish with cold, clean water and place it cut behind the gills so you sever the blood vessels. Allow all blood to release, then rinse and store it in a cooler filled with ice cubes or crushed ice.
Can You Freeze Ungutted Fish?
Keeping ungutted fish on ice is understandable if you are on a boat or in the middle of the great outdoors. You can easily clean it once you return to your home or vacation cabin. Some people wonder, though, if you can freeze ungutted fish. Yes, you can, but keep in mind that things expand when they freeze. The guts of the fish could swell and rupture in the freezer, contaminating the meat. For this reason, it is best to gut fish before placing them in the freezer.
How Long Before Ungutted Fish Goes Bad?
There are several factors that can affect how long ungutted fish on ice will last. The fish should be bled out and rinsed with cold water before being placed on ice. To keep the fish fresh, drain the excess water and refill the cooler with crushed ice periodically. With proper handling, ungutted fish on ice can last 1-2 days if bled. If you don’t keep ungutted fish on ice, it will go bad in a matter of hours. How quickly will depend on the outside temperature.
How Long Does Fresh Caught Fish Last in the Fridge?
Freshwater fish can be bled out and placed in the refrigerator in a water-filled container. Ungutted fish will last two to three days in the refrigerator. Gutted fresh fish will last up to five days in the refrigerator.
How Long Can You Freeze Fish Before It Goes Bad?
As mentioned above, fish can be frozen with the guts in or out, but we recommend that you completely clean fish before putting them in the freezer. Keeping fish in the freezer allows you to eat lean fish meat all year long, which is a great thing unless you have additional fishing seasons where you live, such as ice fishing or salmon season.
How long can you keep fish in the freezer? With proper preparation, frozen fish can last up to a year, although the USDA recommends no longer than 8 months. To prevent freezer burn, gutted fish should be dried, then wrapped in aluminum foil or cling wrap before being placed in Ziploc freezer bags. Handled correctly, frozen fish should be just as flavorful as fresh fish, but the texture of the flesh might change a bit if you store fish in the freezer.
How to Keep Fish Fresh Without Ice
So, what happens if you are on the river and the trout are feeding, but you don’t have an ice chest with you? You can help your fish stay good by keeping it alive in a live well or bucket of cold water or by bleeding and gutting and then placing it in a cool place. You can wrap it in wet newspapers and place it in a shady spot, or you can pat them dry and rub a layer of salt inside and out. If you do this, remember that you might need to soak the fish in ice water to get rid of the excess salt before cooking it.
Here are a few final thoughts about keeping your fresh-caught fish fresh. If you know you are fishing to eat the fish, bring along a cooler of ice or a bucket large enough to keep the fish alive until you can get them home. After the fish dies, take a few minutes to bleed it, using a sharp knife and cutting right behind the gills.
If you choose to leave your fish ungutted, be sure you have plenty of ice on hand because bacteria will spread quickly from the guts of a dead fish. For the best flavor and texture, go ahead and bleed and gut the fish before putting them on ice, or cut fillets and place them in cling wrap or plastic bags in the cooler.
Fishing for the table is an amazing way to feed your family healthy meals straight from nature, and most fish are safe to eat if properly handled after being caught. Until next time, Happy Fishing!