KEEPING YOUR FISH FRESH... NEVER FROZEN - by Captain Mike Schoonveld

KEEPING YOUR FISH FRESH... NEVER FROZEN - by Captain Mike Schoonveld

Whether it’s a walleye frying up crisp in a cast iron skillet over an open fire on a remote lake shore or a fresh salmon fillet over hot coals after being caught earlier in the day, there’s no better fish than one which is freshly caught and quickly prepared without ever being frozen.



Three melted bottles and a cooler of water—a good start on poached salmon. 


There are many measures of a successful fishing trip. For some, just getting out spells success, I’ve had days when sometimes just getting back to shore was a measure; at times, catching and releasing a big fish or spending a relaxing day with friends is all an angler needs to put a smile on his face or warmth in his heart. One of my favorite measures is if I catch enough fish to make a meal for myself, or for my family.

Whether it’s a walleye frying up crisp in a cast iron skillet over an open fire on a remote lake shore or a fresh salmon fillet over hot coals after being caught earlier in the day, there’s no better fish than one which is freshly caught and quickly prepared without ever being frozen. That being the case, I often plan my lunch or dinner menu based on the success or failure of a morning fishing trip.



Sometimes however, I come home thinking, “freshly caught fish” but my wife was thinking “pork roast” and the meat is already in the oven. What should be done with these fresh fillets to keep them tasting freshly caught if they won’t be eaten until the next day or the next? I could freeze them and they’d last days, weeks or months and there’s nothing wrong with properly frozen—properly thawed fish. But the best is fresh, never frozen.



Water makes up about 70% of the content inside the millions of cells that bind together to make a fish. One of the mysterious properties of water when it crystallizes into ice is that it expands about nine percent as it freezes. The ice crystals become little daggers sharp enough to poke through cell walls and the expansion pushes those daggers against and through the cell walls. Everything that was in the fish is still in the fish, but when it thaws the texture of the meat changes and the delicate flavors of a fresh fish is muddled to some degree. Don’t get me wrong. Freezing is an excellent way of preserving fish for weeks or months and properly thawed, the flavor of a frozen fish is still very good. But it’s not the same as being fresh, never frozen.



To answer the question about how to store fish unfrozen for several days without it becoming “fishy” tasting (and am not using the word “fishy” in a kind way) look to the commercial fishing industry to see how they do it. Often, that “fresh, never frozen” fish you find in restaurants or at seafood counters in large supermarkets are indeed, never frozen. Its freshness may be a bit subjective.


The fish is caught, now keep it fresh until it’s time to cook it. 


For many species of fish, the commercial boats don’t go out in the morning and come back to the docks a few hours later to offload their catch, then rush the fish to an airport to deliver it to a swanky restaurant somewhere in middle America. Most commercial boats go out for several days, fill their holds with unfrozen fish and then head back to their port. The fish are never frozen, but they are kept pretty darned close to “fresh.”

The secret is to cool the fish down to the “almost” frozen level by quickly cooling the fish to 32 degrees. They do it with crushed ice.



A layer of crushed ice goes in the bottom of the compartment where the fish are being stored. Then a layer of fish which are “partially” cleaned are added. At the least, they have had their entrails removed. Sometimes, their gills are removed as well, often their whole head is lopped off, just to conserve space—(think swordfish).

Then another layer of crushed ice is piled on, then another layer of fish and so on until the container or compartment is full. The point is, if you want to keep your fresh fish “almost fresh” for several days, do it like the professionals do. Use layers of ice and fish.



Why not just stick the fish in a Ziplock and pop them into the refrigerator? That’s okay for a few hours or a day, but refrigerators aren’t “ice cold” and the colder the fish, the longer it will stay fresh. Even a few degrees makes a big difference in the bacterial growth and enzyme action that makes fish taste fishy.


Properly iced fish will stay fresh for several days. 


Ice cold is 32 degrees. Most refrigerators have an average temperature of 37 to 40 degrees, with some parts warmer and some colder. If it’s set any colder, some parts of the fridge will drop below 32 and the lettuce will freeze or beer will turn to slush when the top is popped. Any warmer and stored cheese will mold quickly and even non-seafood items stored food in the fridge are apt to develop a fishy taste.

A container full of crushed ice, as on a commercial boat is 32 degrees and will remain 32 degrees and so will the fish layered in the iced-filled container. A drain in the bottom allows any water that melts to drain away so the fish on the bottom aren’t soaking in cold water.



A long weekend’s worth of fish can be stored like this using a cooler with a drain in it. Layer ice and par-cleaned fish in the cooler, allowing any meltwater to drain away. If you prefer to fillet the fish first, pack the fillets in Ziplock’s and layer the bags in ice.

When I just want a meal’s worth of fish to stay fresh at home for a few days, I select a suitably-sized bowl then place a steamer basket in the bottom. I place some crushed ice on the steamer rack, then the fish, then more ice on top. The steamer basket allows any meltwater to drip through, away from the fish. Then I pop the bowl into the refrigerator. Inside the fridge the ice will melt slowly. Still, check it a couple times daily, drain out the water below the steaming rack and add ice if needed.



Fish stored like this for two or three days will be as good as fresh—at least to my palate. I wouldn’t hesitate to eat a fish stored like this after a week. You do each time you order “fresh” red snapper or swordfish at a restaurant. It’s “fresh, never frozen”—almost.



Freshly caught fish won’t taste fresh if it doesn’t stay fresh from the time it’s caught until it can be cleaned. Again heat is the culprit. Only one thing can retard this process, cold.

As soon as a fish dies, it starts to decay due to both bacteria and enzyme action. The reason commercially caught fish are at least gutted before storage is because the acids in their digestive system start digesting their innards when the fish dies. Luckily, a few hours isn’t much of problem especially when the dead fish is well chilled. If you need to store them any longer, kill the fish and gut them—then put them on ice.



Or use a livewell. Catch a fish, pop it in the livewell where it will stay alive until just a few minutes away from the fish cleaning station. That works well when fishing for walleye, perch or other relatively small fish on boats equipped with livewells.

That doesn’t work so well for salmon, steelhead and lake trout anglers. Even if the livewell on the boat is large enough to hold a limit or two of salmon, if the surface water is summer warm, those fish brought up from the cool depths aren’t going to live long in captivity. They need to go into a cooler with enough ice to cool them down and keep them cool until the end of the trip.


Plenty of ice and a Yeti or other super-cooler will easily keep fish fresh until the end of the trip. 


A walleye floating dead in a livewell in 60 or 70 degree water for a few hours isn’t going to be fresh. A salmon laying dead in a 100-quart cooler with a couple of bags of ice or a couple of frozen water bottles for several hours isn’t going to be top quality meat for your family.

It’s doubtful either of these situations is going to produce fillets so deteriorated they will be dangerous to eat, but the idea is to take care of the fish properly. Keep it alive as long as possible, then cool it down to 32 degrees or close to it as quickly as possible.

Walleye guys, you need a fish cooler, as well as a livewell. You know a few of the walleye you catch (or deeply hooked perch) are going to be bleeding and won’t survive long in the livewell. If you open the livewell and see a floater in there, pull it out, put it in a fish box and get it cooled down.

How cold does the fish in a fish cooler need to be? Ideally, the same process the commercial guys use, surrounding the fish in crushed ice or at least ice cubes will cool the fish down to 32 degrees—again, as cold as it can be without actually freezing.

I’ve been on saltwater boats in the tropics and elsewhere that do this. Granted, these were often bigger boats than what most people fish out of on the Great Lakes, but the mahi or tuna we caught were put in a large storage container and ice was periodically added to cover the freshly caught fish.

I’ve been on a couple of big charter boats on the Great Lakes that treated their catch similarly. They’d have one giant cooler filled to the top with fresh ice and the mate would layer in ice over the top of the fish as needed. Most of us don’t take it that far and most boats don’t have the space to keep extra coolers around, just for ice storage. So what can we do?

There’s no exact answer since the conditions change according to the season and the conditions are different from boat to boat—from cooler to cooler. When I start my season here in Indiana in March, we are often fishing in air and water temperatures in the 30s. I don’t need much ice to keep my cohos fresh.

By mid-summer, on my open boat on a sweltering sunny day, I need a more ice—a lot more. A shaded boat would be somewhat different and here’s where one of those expensive roto-molded coolers like Grizzlies or Yetis or foam insulated models like Coleman’s Xtreme Coolers start paying off with fresh tasting fillets.


When there’s not a roast in the oven, my day’s catch often becomes baked walleye. 


Rather than explaining what to do, it’s easier to say what not to do. The short explanation is don’t skimp on ice. If you stop by a convenience store on the way to the lake, grab a seven- or eight-pound bag of ice cubes and toss it into the fish box, you are probably falling short. At least spring for the big, 20- or 22-pound bag. Better than that, buy three or four of the small bags which makes it easy to at least attempt making layers of ice over the fish in the cooler.

For salmon fishermen, a 100-quart cooler is a “standard” size. It will hold plenty of fish and most salmon or lake trout will fit without having to bend them at all or perhaps just curl the tail a little on one end.



So how much ice is needed to keep the fish inside fresh? To see the cooler shots pasted on Great Lakes oriented Facebook posts, many people seem to think a small bag of ice will do the job. A small ice from the convenience store where I buy weighs seven pounds. A large bag weighs twenty.

A gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds so that small bag of ice cubes is basically the equivalent of chunking in frozen, one-gallon milk jug. (Due to explansion, you can only fill a milk jug with about 7 1/2 pounds of water to freeze it with out it splitting.)

So, let’s compare these two, side by side in equal conditions. The ice bottle will still have some ice in it when the last ice cube melts to water. Advantage, ice bottle—right?


When it comes to fish, fresh is always the best. 


Not really. It’s not how long the ice lasts that matters, it’s how well that 7 1/2 pounds of ice pulls the heat out of the dead fish. The reason the ice cubes melt faster is because it’s cooling the air and fish inside the cooler more quickly. Quicker is better. Consider also, most bags of ice leak as they thaw and what leaks out is 32 degree water dripping across the fish if the bag is on top of the fish pile. That cold water also pulls heat energy from the fish layers and as the cold water accumulates at the bottom, it will continue to keep the fish chilled—at least the bottom part of the fish.

On the warmest days of the summer, I compromise by using a combination of homemade ice bottles and bags of ice cubes for the fish in my cooler. Three or four containers of home-frozen water go into the cooler along with three small bags from the quicky mart. I choose the smaller bags so I can easily rearrange them as fish are added. The ice bottles add longevity. Both of them working together make a good team.




Cold sinks and melted ice water flows downward. So put the ice on the top. Having a good layer of ice on the bottom of the cooler doesn’t do much good if the fish are just piled on top and more are added. So when enough fish are coolered to cover the bottom, grab the ice bags and bottles and pile them on top of the fish. As more fish are added, keep moving the ice to the top. The cold air will sink, the cold meltwater will drip down across the fish at the bottom. I know I’ve been successful when the fish are ice cold when I pull them out of the fish box to flop them on the cutting board.

Keep the fillets cold for the ride home and it’s fresh fish for dinner—unless there’s a roast in the oven.



Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.