Fish Handling

by Jon Rowley

(first published on Jon's blog, "The Beautiful Taste", October 29, 2010, used with permission)

When it comes to “beautiful tastes,” there is perhaps none more beautiful than the taste of fish when the season, harvest, handling and preparation all come together…when we are lucky to taste a fish as good as it can be.


How a fish is caught and handled during its first three hours out of the water determines its eating qualities, at least that is what I found after I started paying attention to the relationship of flavor to fish handling on my own salmon troller in SE Alaska, studying hook-and-line fishing methods in different parts of the U.S. and Europe and working with chefs and fishermen conjointly to correlate what happens on deck with what happens in the pan and on the palate. The concept is simple but it took something like 10 years for the light bulb to go off.

Hook-and-line gear (longline, troll, jig, rod, and reel) offers the potential for the highest quality fish because they come aboard and can be dealt with individually. Here are the steps I have found that produce the highest quality, best tasting, and most beautiful fish.

  • As soon as the fish come aboard or even before, the fish is stunned by a sharp blow to the top of the head. The heart is still pumping but the fish won’t flop and bruise itself and we can prevent the lactic acid build-up associated with struggle. The stunning step also prevents scale loss. Scale coverage is essential to the manufacture of protective slime when rigor mortis sets in. Complete scale coverage makes for beautiful, shiny fish and is probably the best indicator of how well a fisherman has handled the fish.
  • Bleed as soon as possible while the fish is alive by severing an artery between the heart and the gill. This allows the fish to die a relaxed death and removing the blood results in a cleaner flavor.
  • Dress. Remove the entrails and rinse as soon as possible.
  • Get fish into ice before it goes into rigor mortis (gets stiff). Fish should be straight when they go into rigor. Pre-rigor icing is the key step to supple, resilient high-quality fish.
  • In a perfect world, the fish would be left in rigor iced until it started to come out. Gaping sometimes seen in very fresh fillets (see below) comes from handling and filleting in rigor, especially if the fish in rigor gets bent in the process.

salmon steakFor the best flavor, texture, and “mouth-feel,” the time to eat a fish is just after it comes out of rigor when the aforementioned steps have been accomplished.

It is counter-intuitive, but fish can be too fresh. Depending on the species, cooking a fish in rigor can result in a weird texture, i.e. soft, grainy, or, in the case of sturgeon, like shoe leather.

The flavor, texture, and “mouthfeel” of a fish depends on how it is handled on deck the first three hours out of the water. Rarely is there an opportunity to demonstrate how it all works.

When I learned Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, and I would both be on the program at the Chefs Collaborative Summit in Boston, I proposed we organize a charter fishing field trip out of Boston prior. It would be an opportunity to show chefs the handling-for-best-flavor steps as fish came aboard. An ardent fisherman since childhood, Paul was right on it making arrangements with Neponset Sport Fishing Charters for the 38-foot Blue Moon II, licensed for 6, which meant four open spots in addition to Paul and I.  Leigh Belanger, the Chefs Collaborative Program Director, recruited Board members Peter Hoffman, owner of Savoy and Back 40 restaurants in Manhattan, Amy Bodiker, an organic farming consultant from Cleveland, Robin Schempp, owner of Right Stuff in Vermont and Bruce Sherman, chef-owner of North Pond restaurant in Chicago. A great group.

I worked out with skipper Jim Maloney how we wanted to use the opportunity to demonstrate the handling steps from hook to plate to produce the best flavor. We would stun, bleed, dress, rinse, and ice pre-rigor. A few days later, the fish would be prepared for the Chefs Collaborative post-conference National Board dinner by Michael Leviton at four-star Lumiere…a good opportunity to see and taste the results.

In the 1970s,  the pollution here was so bad, a fishing charter in the Boston Harbor would have been unthinkable. After the Clean Water Act of 1972, Boston was forced to curtail effluents and clean up its waters. Today Boston Harbor is a poster child of marine water quality restoration projects, our fishing trip a tangible outcome.

On fishing day, it was still dark when we found the Blue Moon II at the Neponset dock at 5:30 a.m. Skipper Jim Maloney and deckhand daughter, Lauren, were loading bags of ice. The sun was just peeking over the islands to the east as we eased out of the harbor.

It was a short 15-minute run to reach the pier that extends past the end of the Logan Airport runway. The pier supports the lights that guide incoming planes to the runway. An unlikely fishing spot? Maloney explained the pier provides habitat for various small fish that bluefish and striped bass feed on. Only one boat preceded us but before long there were dozens.iced salmon

Our fishing method and bait would “depend on what they’re taking.” On this day it was to be “bunker chunks,” frozen menhaden cut into pieces. Skipper Maloney hands us each a pole with a chunk of menhaden on a hook. The boat is anchored.

While we are waiting for fish to take the bait held off the bottom with a balloon bobber, Greenberg tells how menhaden, an important mid-Atlantic forage fish, have been decimated with a single company, Omega Protein of Reedsville, Virginia, catching the vast majority of the fish.

Menhaden are useless to humans in their pure form,” he says, “but Omega Protein grinds them up in the millions for use as pig, chicken, and salmon feed and more recently as Omega-3 dietary supplements.” Greenberg recommended Bruce Franklin’s book The Most Important Fish in the Sea. “According to Franklin menhaden populations were once so vast that the lead end of a school would arrive in Cape Cod while the tail end was still in Maine.”

Getting “skunked,” not catching a single fish, crossed our collective mind as the early morning sun greeted more boats appearing along the pier and reflected off the wide-body jets lifting off overhead. Skunk days are rationalized with something like, “It’s just nice to be out on the water and get some fresh sea air. Catching fish isn’t that big of a deal.” At least we lucked out for weather; it was flat calm.

But we wouldn’t be skunked this day. The ice was broken when the tip of Peter Hoffman’s pole made sharp lunges. Excitement on deck! With Peter reeling in, the fish made a swoosh here, and a dash there and a plunge until  Lauren finally scooped a large bluefish into the net and slung it aboard. The “skunk was off the deck,” as we say.

I couldn’t find a club of any sort to stun the fish with (charter boat fish are normally put into the fish box and left to flop) so I grabbed the long-handled deck brush and gave the fish a sharp conk on the back of the head just above the eyes. The heart still pumps but the fish is immobilized…no flopping on deck, no bruising, no scale loss, no lactic acid build-up. Stunning is the first step on deck to getting a fish in top shape to the plate. Deckhand Lauren promptly nicknamed the deck brush, the “club brush.”

Although local, plentiful, and sustainable, bluefish don’t appear on many menus in New England. Sports fishermen have trouble giving them away. Often brown-hued and strong flavored, it is all in the handling. Our goal is to transform the sleek, oil-rich bluefish into an entirely different fish on the plate.

The next step is bleeding, severing the artery between the heart and the gill. We bleed the fish so it dies a relaxed death; removing the blood gives fish cleaner flavor.

Paul Greenberg had the next action. The bend in his pole and the grin on his face told of a strong. good-sized fish. He thought it to be a good striper by the heft, but alas another bluefish. They were good-sized here.

With the change of tide,  the current was now carrying some of the small forage fish away from the pier, maybe striped bass would give chase. Bruce Sherman had one on, but, after some good pulls, it shook the hook. A beaming Robin Schempp landed the first striper. As the fish were landed, I kept up with the stunning and bleeding.

In 1984, the US Congress responded to a precipitous decline in wild Atlantic striped bass populations, overfishing, and pollution of critical spawning habitat both contributing, to the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act. The re-emergence of wild Atlantic striped bass abundance after 25 years has been quite a fisheries management and pollution reduction success story.

I am 35 years old and when I was a child up until 15 years ago I never saw striped bass in Boston Harbor,” says Naponset Charters manager Jennifer Maloney. “They made a huge comeback after the cleanup.

Amy Bodiker,  fishing for the first time in her life, hooked into a whopper striper. Her arms and shoulders tired from reeling in the powerful fish but the fish made her happy. At 38-inches long, it would be the biggest fish of the day and a lifetime memory for Amy. When Lauren had it in the net and on deck, I conked Amy’s fish and opened it’s artery with a West Coast troller’s salmon cleaning knife I had brought along.

When bleeding has ceased, the blood on deck is flushed through the scuppers and over the side with a deck hose or deck bucket. Fish are gutted or dressed as soon as they finish bleeding. I had a special trough for cleaning fish on my salmon boat in Alaska. On the Blue Moon II, I used Skipper Malone’s bait cutting platform.

After gutting and rinsing, the next step is to get the fish into ice right away. The sooner a fish is iced before it goes into rigor mortis, the better. If a fish goes through rigor mortis without icing, it goes in quickly, doesn’t stay in very long, and comes out quickly. Though very fresh, such a fish can end up with a soft unappealing texture from both biochemical damage and the ripping and tearing of tissue at a microscopic level. When iced pre-rigor, the fish goes into rigor slowly, stays in a long time, and comes out slowly. The result is resilient, supple flesh that retains all of its goodness.iced striped bass

The white matter often seen on the outside of cooked fish is albumin, a protein released from tissue damage be it from cooking at too high a temperature or for too long, from age, or from less than ideal rigor mortis conditions. You won’t see albumin on the outside of a fresh, well handled and mindfully cooked piece of fish. The juices, proteins, and goodness are held inside by flesh with cellular integrity.

Fish should be iced in a straight position; fish that go into rigor bent often result in damaged gaping flesh. If a fish is straightened while in rigor, it will pop out, resulting in damaged tissue.

It is counterintuitive but the best eating fish is not the freshest. Providing the fish has been handled as described above, the best texture, flavor, and mouthfeel results from letting the fish take its time coming out of rigor. The chemistry of rigor mortis is extremely complex. While I don’t completely understand what is going on, the longer a fish is in rigor the better it eats. If properly handled and iced, a fish can remain in rigor for several days.  The flavor and mouthfeel of a fish that has gone through rigor in ice and has been otherwise well handled is noticeably superior. More “juiciness” in the words of one fish scientist. This is fish that gives the term, mouthfeel, meaning. To me, the mouthfeel is related to but goes beyond, flavor and texture.

Perhaps one percent of commercially caught fish will have been handled as described here. I’m not sure how many commercial fishermen are actually aware of how handling affects flavor. I wasn’t completely until I teamed fishermen and chefs up to identify cause and effect relationships. Fish of this quality can boost the diner’s perception of the restaurant and the chef’s skill’s considerably. Countless times, I’ve heard waiters report back to the kitchen, “They said that was the best fish they’ve ever eaten.

The loose idea was for our catch to be prepared by Michael Leviton at Lumiere, for the Chef’s Collaborative Board dinner three days later. From the standpoint of rigor mortis, the timing was perfect if we could keep the fish straight and in ice. Our challenge was to get our two bluefish and two stripers, rather large fish, from the boat to the Lumiere kitchen. Fortunately, the dock at Neponset had a cart that allowed us to keep the fish straight. We slipped the fish into garbage bags, three of us making the transfer so we could keep the fish from bending. We put ice around the fish and filled the bellies as well.

Our van was waiting at the head of the dock. Our van driver was more interested in our catch stories than getting errant fish juice on his carpet. No worries. Peter Hoffman gallantly placed his raincoat under the fish just in case. Once again it took three people to keep the bagged fish straight when lifting into the van.

Michael Leviton was at the Red Sox game so we would have to figure out quickly where to store the fish until he could pick them up. Bambara, the restaurant at the Hotel Marlowe would have a cooler. We didn’t go unnoticed with our cargo of four heavy, bulging white garbage bags and our inordinate interest in their placement on the hotel luggage cart.

At this point, our fish were all very stiff, very much in rigor and we were careful to keep them that way when transferring our bundles from the luggage cart to flat sheet pans in the kitchen. So far, so good. Michael Leviton would fetch them after the ball game and take them to Lumiere.

I was on the plane to Seattle when the bluefish was filleted, but, according to Michael, the fish cutter was impressed with the clear limpid blue color of the flesh, clearly different from the bluefish they normally received. “Great project.”

The clarity of the striped bass filets was impressive,” said Leviton. “The fish ate wonderfully, both raw and cooked!

Amy Bodiker reported on the fish courses at the Lumiere dinner.

The fish was fantastic – and cooked with a lot of love! Robin’s striped bass was made into a tartar with a bit of an Asian application; the blues were served in a salad under a seared scallop, and my striper was roasted (and presented) whole. Served with roasted fennel and smoky tomato, green olive sauce. The flavor was spectacular!

About the AuthorJon Rowley

Jon Rowley’s career has been a fascinating life-long exploration and quest to improve the flavor, quality, and understanding of fish, shellfish, fruits, and vegetables.

After traveling to Europe and attending Reed College, Jon Rowley began his career as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. In 1981, as a life-long scholar of the seafood industry from harvest to table, he began consulting to restaurants, retailers, seafood companies, and other businesses. Rowley has received national marketing awards and considerable media coverage for programs he has initiated such as Bruce Gore’s “Signature Salmon” and Copper River and Yukon River King Salmon.

Sparked by an Ernest Hemingway passage in The Moveable Feast on eating oysters and a subsequent seminal platter of oysters at Le Dome in Paris, Jon developed a career-influencing passion for oysters. He does marketing and various consulting work for fifth-generation Taylor Shellfish Farms and has organized restaurant oyster programs and promotions across the country. He produces the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, an annual dating service for West Coast wines and oysters.

In addition to his consulting and marketing work for seafood producers and buyers, Jon works with farmers, restaurants, and retailers to improve the quality, flavor, and distribution of fruits and vegetables. Anthony’s HomePort’s seasonal, local strawberry program based on just-picked local berries and the much-acclaimed Metropolitan Market’s Peach-O-Rama promotion are examples of this work. He is also an accomplished forager of wild mushrooms and other wild foods.

Jon has taken a personal interest in reviving American heirloom apples. To give expression to several years of research on heritage apples, Jon embarked, with his wife Kate McDermott, on what turned into a two-year quest to develop the “quintessential American apple pie”. Mission accomplished, Jon and Kate co-founded Art of the Pie.

A perceived correlation between organic matter in soil and flavor led Jon to the Seattle Master Composter training, several courses on soil and soil ecology, and to the Interbay P-Patch Community Garden where he served as Site-Coordinator. His work at Interbay has been featured in a number of publications including the Christian Science Monitor and Organic Gardening. One of his proudest accomplishments was the Seattle P-Patch Program’s “Most Beautiful Vegetable” award for his P-Patch grown leeks in 1999.

Rowley was inducted into the prestigious “Who’s Who of Cooking in America” in 1987 for his work improving seafood handling, quality, and information. He served as a Contributing Editor to Gourmet magazine and currently serves as a Contributing Editor to SAVEUR. He was the recipient of the Seattle Weekly’s first annual Angelo Pellegrini Award and is a member of the Shaw’s Crab House’s Oyster Hall of Fame in Chicago.

Transporting Fish from Alaska

If you're visiting Alaska and you want to take some fish home with you, it can be done. Here are some options.

Lodges and Fish Camps

Fishing lodges may freeze and pack your fish for transport home. The better-equipped facilities will vacuum-pack your fish and freeze it for you. Vacuum-packing prevents the fish from freezer burn, which results when air comes into contact with the fillets. Bony fish such as rockfish and lingcod sometimes fail to seal because the bones may penetrate the plastic used for vacuum-sealing. Inspect your fish before it is packed for shipping to ensure that no bones have punctured the bags. Punctured bags are evident because the plastic will feel loose, rather than tight against the fish. After freezing and just before transport, the lodge will pack your fish in boxes for shipping home.

Doing it Yourself

It's common to take fish to a processor for vacuum-packing and boxing before shipping. Popular fisheries like the Kenai River offer several processors, so check prices and services offered before committing to one. At a minimum, you need the fish vacuum-sealed and boxed for transport. Additional services can include holding your fish throughout your Alaska trip, so you can continue fishing while your catch is being processed. This works very well for folks on trips of two weeks or longer, where they may accumulate several boxes of fish.

Packing Methods

Coolers are ideal for hauling fish because they're rugged and they are insulated. On the downside, they can be heavier than fish boxes, and they aren't always cheap. Most airlines limit checked luggage to 50 pounds per piece; if you go over that, you pay excess or overweight baggage fees, which can become quite expensive. A 48-quart cooler will hold almost exactly 50 pounds of fish if it's packed tightly.

Fish Boxes are ideal for hauling fish, and they come in insulated and non-insulated types. The non-insulated boxes are inexpensive and may be ideal for shorter flights. If your fish will be in transit for more than 10 hours, however, you should consider insulated fish boxes.

Weigh each container to ensure you are not charged for overweight baggage.

What's Next in Alaska Fishing?

We've got you covered! Check out the Fishing Menu on the left side of this page, or click one of the links below for more information.

Alaska Salmon Run Charts  |  Freshwater Fishing  |  Saltwater Fishing  |  Dipnetting  |  Alaska Fishing Forums  |  Caring for Your Catch

Fishing Locations

Check out the following links to the various fishing locations in Alaska.

Northern Panhandle  |  Southern Panhandle  |  Kenai Peninsula  |  Kodiak-Afognak  |  South-Central  |  Alaska Peninsula  |  Interior  |  Eastern Arctic  |  Western Arctic  |  Yukon Delta