Maybe you've got a fish flopping on the ground right now. Or you're just preparing for when you land a keeper in the future. Either way, the last thing you want is to ruin the taste of your catch and create a bloody mess by preparing it the wrong way. That's why I'm going to show you how to bleed a fish.
I only understood how important it is to bleed fish once I started working on fishing boats and learned the proper way. Proper bleeding will give you fresher-tasting fish and eliminate that metallic, fishy taste (I'll explain why later). It'll also be cleaner and easier to filet your catch without all that blood.
I'll share the tools you'll need and walk you through each step of the bleeding process. I'll also dig into how to prevent contamination after you bleed your fish and ensure your dinner is fresh and tasty.
What You Will Need To Bleed A Fish
Before we cover how to bleed a fish, you'll want to have some items handy to help make the process faster, easier, and cleaner. Once you've got all the materials ready, bleeding a fresh fish won't take more than a few minutes.
- Utility knife
- Cutting board
- Bleach & water cleaning solution
- Fish handling gloves
- Measuring tape/ruler
- Current fish size regulations for your region
Why You Need To Bleed A Fish
Bleeding the fish as soon as possible after catching it will increase the quality and leave you with a better-tasting, white meat fish. If you skip the bleeding process, you'll end up with a potentially foul-tasting fish instead of a fresh and delicious meal. People often describe this foul taste as "fishy" or relate it to a metallic flavor. Either way, bleeding a fish will help you put the best-tasting fish possible on your dinner table.
During the fight to reel in the fish, it will struggle, pumping warm blood through its muscles and creating a lactic acid build-up. This is especially true with hard-fighting fish.
You'll notice the flavor difference if this blood and lactic acid isn't drained from the muscles. Additionally, lactic acid will decrease the ph level of the blood in veins. This leads to a breakdown of protein in the muscle, creating a lower quality of fish meat.
You can't avoid the lactic acid build-up caused during the fight. You can, however, minimize the build-up by reducing the time it struggles after it's caught. That's why it's important to be ready to bleed the fish on the spot. Also, blood is a nutrient-rich environment for bacterial growth. So removing it quickly reduces the chance of foodborne illness.
As a bonus, bleeding makes it cleaner and easier to fillet the fish. Believe me when I tell you that cutting into the fish without excess blood is much less messy and makes cleaning easier.
Step By Step Instructions
1. Prepare Your Supplies And Working Area
Preparing your gear and creating a cleaner workspace is critical to ensure you end up with fresh-tasting fish.
To prevent contamination:
- Use 2 tablespoons of bleach for every 1 gallon of water to make a cleaning solution.
- Clean your knife, cutting board, gloves, and bucket with the bleach/water solution.
- Clean these items as soon as possible after you bleed or filet a fish to reduce the risk of bacterial growth.
You'll ideally want all the supplies laid out and ready to go. At the very least, you should keep your backpack well organized so you can easily find the supplies once you land a fish.
Aside from making your life easier, the less time between catching and bleeding will give you the best-tasting fish.
2. Catch A Keeper
Easily the most difficult step!
Be sure to have a measuring tape or ruler and the current fish size regulations for your region and target species. There's no going back once you bleed a fish. You have a responsibility to that fish and their species' health to ensure they're keeper size before bleeding.
Got one? Good! Onto the next step.
3. Let The Fish Tire Out…Or Don’t
I'd highly recommend bleeding as soon as possible to ensure the best-tasting meat.
That said, you might hear some mixed information about this step. Some people say to wait until the fish tires out. Others say to bleed as soon as possible after catching.
Waiting until the fish tires out or dies after getting the fish on board will make it easier to bleed. It won't thrash as much and is easier to control. Handling the fish will be safer, considering you're using a sharp knife.
However, the extended time struggling will increase the risk of bruising and the build-up of lactic acid in fish muscles. This creates a foul fishy taste. Waiting may also put the fish in rigor mortis, which will make for a less flavorsome fish.
Stunning is also important if you want to kill the fish with the most humane method. Waiting until they're tired is essentially suffocating them and prolonging their suffering.
Over time, you'll learn how to hold down and control a live fish. I'd suggest learning sooner than later.
Old captain's tip: I worked on a boat where we'd bring in game fish like tuna and other large species that were dangerous to handle live. My captain would always have some cheap vodka handy and pour a bit into their gills. The calming effect is immediate, and as he'd like to say, "the fish die drunk and happy."
4. Locate The Brain
Stunning the fish by stabbing the brain isn't entirely necessary. It will, however, make it easier to handle, reduce lactic acid build-up, and is a more humane method to bleed the fish.
First, you'll have to get the fish under control on top of the cutting board. Controlling the fish is easier with textured fish handling gloves. They help maintain grip and protect your hands against slime/spikes. I'd suggest using your non-dominant hand to hold the fish head place, so your dominant hand is free to use the knife. Also, be careful of spikes, which will vary in location based on the species of fish.
You can find the brain using your dominant hand to feel for the soft spot behind the eye.
5. Stun The Fish
Once you have control of the fish on the cutting board with your non-dominant hand, pick up your knife with your dominant hand. I'd suggest using a short-blade utility knife because they're easier and safer to stab with than a long, wobbly fillet knife.
Press the tip of the knife against the soft spot above the brain.
Apply firm pressure until the knife pierces through the fish and meets the cutting board.
Maintain a firm grip and pressure on the knife until the fish has stopped moving. If the fish is still moving a lot after a minute or two, repeat this step by creating a new incision into the brain right beside the first cut.
Once the fish has stopped moving, it'll be much easier to handle, and you can start the bleeding.
6. Cut Behind The Gills
Cutting behind the gills is one of the most effective ways to bleed a fish because you'll slice the main artery and blood vessels.
Begin the cut with the point of your knife behind the gills on either side of the fish. There's typically a bone just behind the opening for the gills. Make sure to place the knifepoint just behind that bony tissue to make the incision easier.
Cut the knife blade down to the "V" of connective tissue under the head of the fish where the gills meet.
Slice through the connective tissue to sever the main artery. Make sure you're prepared for the release of blood pressure.
7. Place In A Bucket Of Icy Water For 10-15 Minutes
Get your fish into a bucket of icy water as soon as you make your cut.
Any ice water or cold water will work. However, a mix of water and crushed ice, known as an ice slurry, is ideal for maximum, even cooling. If bleeding in a bucket of water is not possible, you can keep the fish cold by covering it with ice instead.
I like to keep a fish bleeding out in the cold water bucket for about 10-15 minutes. Some people claim a fish bleeds out entirely in about 3 minutes, while others claim to leave them in for 30 minutes. I think 10-15 minutes is a happy medium. After the removal from water, rinse the fish with clean sea water.
I'd only caution leaving a fish in for too long if you're bleeding them out in cool or warm water (not recommended). The extended time without ice could in bloody water increases the risk of eating fish with bacteria. You should also be aware that cool/warm water will not create blood loss as effectively as keeping the fish cold in icy water.
What To Do After You Bleed A Fish?
You may not always want to eat your fish right after it's caught. You might already have dinner plans after your day of fishing, or maybe you caught more than you can eat (a lucky problem!) and want to save some for future meals.
The first thing you should do after bleeding is gut the fish. The guts are a prime place for bacteria to develop, so removing them as soon as possible helps prevent contamination and spoilage. If it's a fish with scales, go ahead a descale it.
After that, you should decide whether to filet the fish or eat it whole. If you want to do a traditional fish fry and eat it whole, keep in mind you'll only be able to preserve it raw for 2 days. On the other hand, you can preserve fish filets for up to 8 months if properly stored and frozen.
Storing For 1-3 days
Raw fish will stay fresh for about 3 days if you keep the fish meat temperature at 40 degrees or less.
Whether you decide to cut your fish into filets or eat the entire fish doesn't matter. You need to get the fish cool on ice or in the refrigerator as soon as possible after the cleaning process. That's why it's always a good idea to have an iced-down, clean cooler nearbywhen you plan to keep what you catch.
Keep your fish cool on ice until you get it in a refrigerator. Crushed ice is best because it creates even contact and cooling across the entire surface of the fish flesh. You never want your fish to become submerged in fresh water, so it's a good idea to leave the drain valve open to allow excess water to drain. I like to carry a few freezer storage bags to put the fillets in. This helps to reduce oxygen exposure and avoids direct contact with the ice.
As soon as you get back to the house, put your catch into the refrigerator. A vacuum sealer will help preserve freshness but isn't necessary for 1-3 days of storage. I just like to get as much air out of the ziplock bags as possible using the press, roll, then seal technique.
If you're camping on a fishing trip and have no fridge access, make sure to keep the bled fish on ice at all times. I highly recommend investing in a hard-sided, well-insulated cooler that you don't have to open frequently. You'll burn through a lot less ice and ensure the internal temperature stays low enough to keep the fish fresh.
Storing For 3 days - 8 Months
Although I love eating my fish fresh, I can't count on catching something every fishing trip. So if the bite is on and I don't already have a supply of fish, I know I'll be freezing part of my catch.
When you preserve raw fish properly, you can keep it frozen for up to 8 months. However, keep in mind that you will only be able to freeze filets. If you want to eat your fish whole, you'll need to cook it in the first 1-3 days.
A vacuum sealer is absolutely necessary to freeze a fish properly. Before sealing, pat down the filets with a dry paper towel to remove as much moisture as possible. Leaving moisture on the surface of the filet and then freezing will cause freezer burn.
Once you've dried the filet, follow the instructions on your vacuum sealer. After it's sealed up, put the package in the freezer, and now you'll have some frozen fish fillets.
One of my favorite parts of the fishing experience is sharing my catch with family and friends. Bleeding the fish is an absolute necessity if I want them to have the freshest, best-tasting fish possible.
Now that you know the steps to properly bleed a fish, get out there and catch a keeper!
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.