There are many reasons that anglers go fishing — for fun, to relieve stress, to make memories with friends and family, for the challenge of hunting the finned creatures — and to get food, to catch then eat fish.
The decision of whether to keep your fish is best made before you get on the water — that way you can be prepared to keep your catch, whether you are on Boone Lake, the Holston River or remote trout streams flowing from the mountains.
The very first thing you need to do is to obtain a fishing license and learn the creel limits of the fish species you are seeking. Cooking your catch adds a touch of self-sufficiency to your fishing trip. And fresh fish tastes great. It is healthy, too.
From the moment you catch a fish until the moment you cook your fish you have to do something with it. Let’s presume you are at the point of catch. If you have a cooler, simply toss them in the cooler. I recommend having a separate fish cooler because they can get a little smelly after being used.
If fishing on foot you will likely be using a stringer. If you can’t store them live in the stream, then I recommend immediately gutting the fish. This makes the fish lighter to carry and you aren’t going to eat the guts anyway. Dispose of the guts in deep or fast moving water. If on a lake, wrap the guts around a rock and throw them far into the lake. Never dispose of guts at a campsite. Fish guts will attract bears. Also, fish guts will disgust the people coming behind you using the campsite.
After your fish is gutted, string the fish through the thin skin just inside the bottom of its lower lip. Another advantage of gutting the fish immediately is you can cut its stomach open and see what it has been eating. This way you may adjust your lures/flies. Remember, never gut a fish unless you are absolutely sure you’re going to keep it.
Boaters have more options. For starters you can string the fish through the lower lip and allow it to stay alive in the water with a stringer attached to the boat. The longer a fish stays alive between catching time and cooking time the better it tastes.
How long does a fish stay good? From our modern point of view, it seems a fish would go bad in a matter of minutes. This simply isn’t the case, though storage and weather conditions will affect how long a fish stays good. If the fish gills are still red or pink the fish should be OK to eat. If the gills have turned brown you may want to reconsider your dining options.
You can also press the flesh of the fish. If it is firm it is OK to eat. If it is mushy leave it be. Just because a fish has become stiff doesn’t mean it’s inedible. If a stiff fish passes the above tests it should be fine.
So no matter your favorite body of water, licensed anglers can keep and cook their catch, literally bringing home the bacon. Just remember to stay within the creel limits — it helps preserve the resource.
Johnny Molloy is the author of several outdoors guidebooks. Visit www.johnnymolloy.com.