As spearos we spend so much time and money in our pursuit of fresh fish. The gear, the fuel, the boat, the charter, the search and the dive all add up. There are many joys along the way, however, the fundamental goal of spearfishing is to take quality seafood home to eat. It can be a bit of a pain to look after your fish and process it all after a long day spearing. However, selective, sustainable seafood of a high quality is what we are all about and time needs to be spent to ensure the quality of the product. I am a firm believer that all fresh fish is quality and with appropriate care and the right recipe it can taste great. In saying that all species taste different and different people have different tastes. The below information is a best practice guide to ensure you give your catch the respect it deserves and the best possible chance of it tasting great come dinner time!
It goes without saying that you want to put the best shot on your target fish that you possibly can. A spine or brain shot will immobilise or stone your fish instantly. This means that the fish does not stress and that you don’t end up with a large hole or large area of bruised flesh from the fight. Failing a stone shot on the target, as soon as possible after securing your fish you should use your dive knife to brain spike (ikejime) the fish. This ensures that the fish is killed humanely and that the fish flesh is of the best possible quality. Muscle movements from stressed out fish result in lactic acid production which can cause a sour taste in some fish. Furthermore, Brain spiking the fish results in blood from the fish being drawn back into the body cavity and out of the flesh.
I also recommend bleeding your fish, particularly if you have speared a pelagic such as trevally, kahawai or kingfish. This is best done in water immediately after brain spiking your fish. Of course, bleeding can attract sharks so if you’re not keen on bleeding your fish while you are in the water, I would suggest you bleed the fish in a large bucket of seawater on your vessel. There are two main arteries that you need to cut. The dorsal and ventral artery are best severed by sliding your dive knife in behind the gills of the fish and cutting up to the back bone to sever the dorsal artery and then cutting downward to sever the ventral artery in the throat.
Tip: if you shoot a good fish, that you would like to get a photo of, you do not have to cut entirely through the throat of the fish. Whilst you are cutting down to sever the ventral artery, take careful note and once blood starts streaming out stop before you completely open up the fish’s throat. This will make the fish look more natural in your photo.
Gutting fish is always a good idea. I gut all my fish promptly after brain spiking and bleeding. However, if there are heaps of sharks around then I will do it in the boat or at the shore. To gut the fish insert your knife into the fish’s cloaca (posterior orifice that serves as the common opening for the intestinal, reproductive and urinary tract) and cut all the way up to the fish’s gills. Then remove all organs from the body cavity of the fish. Gutting fish like butterfish or porae reduces the chance of the gut contents of the fish tainting the flavour of the flesh. Also, the gut acts as burley and in many instances will attract the attention of inquisitive kingfish, trevally, kahawai, blue cod and snapper. A gutted fish will come down to temperature more quickly in the chilli bin. Furthermore, filleting is a much cleaner process with well bleed, gutless fish!
Unless you’re spearfishing in northern Greenland in winter, you should be icing your fish properly. Best practice is to place your fish in an ice/saltwater slurry as soon as you can after brain spiking, bleeding and gutting. Where practical it is best to lay your fish flat and not all curled up. After the fish have been in an ice/saltwater slurry for a few hours, drain the water to leave only the ice and fish. Icing your fish properly keeps the flesh as fresh as can be and will help the onset of rigor mortis (stiffness after death). Once your fish have reached rigor they are good to fillet. Try not to bend your fish to much once they have reached rigor, this can result in damage to the muscle blocks of the flesh and decrease the eating qualities.
Processing the fish
If you are going to fillet your fish it is best to fillet them while in rigor. Filleting them pre-rigor can result in fillets shrinking. You should aim to fillet your fish after rigor sets in (i.e. the fish becomes stiff) and within 1-2days (while keeping your fish on ice). After 2 days on ice fish will go past rigor and become soft again.
Make sure all your processing equipment and processing station/filleting bench is clean and sterile. Treat filleting fish with the same type of cleanliness you would if you were preparing any type of meat in the kitchen. I like to wash the outside of my whole fish with water before I start filleting. However, once you start filleting your fish it is best not to use any water at all to clean the fillets. Remembering back that you have bled and gutted your fish, the only contaminant you should come across is the odd scale or two. Scales can be wiped away with paper towel. If you must use water to clean your fish then use salty water (even if it’s just tap water with some salt added). Fresh water results in moisture being drawn into the cells of the fillet and reduces the flavour and textural qualities of the fish.
Eat it fresh or Freeze it fresh
It goes without saying that as far as fish goes fresh is best. I like to eat my fish, which I have kept cold at all times, within one week of capture.
However, if I am going to freeze fish I like to freeze it the day I fillet it. I use a vacuum sealer to bag my fresh fillets. It is important to lay your fillets flat and not all curled up. Before I had a vacuum sealer I would fill a sink with water, place my fillets in a zip lock bag and seal nearly all the way across leaving about an inch unsealed. I then placed the bag in the water while keeping the unsealed corner above the water. When all the air is forced out from around the fillets I could seal the last inch of the zip lock bag. Having less air around the fillets before freezing reduces the risk of freezer burn.
I have a dedicated freezer that is super cold. The faster fish freeze the better the quality on defrosting. Avoid trying to freeze fillets in an overstocked or not so cold freezer.
Defrosting should be done in the fridge or at room temperature. You should aim to have your fish completely defrosted as close as you can to the time that you intend to cook it. Defrosted fish perishes more quickly than fresh fish and should really be used within a day of defrosting. Also, it is best to eat you fish within 2 months of freezing. Frozen fish will tend to become stronger in flavour if frozen for extended periods and the risk of freezer burn is increased.
Now, get spearing………….