Although sport fishing – by definition – is done more for fun than any actual need on the part of the anglers to catch dinner for their families, the sport is made all the more appealing by the fact that you can actually cook what you catch (see Cook Your Catch, p12). But few amateur anglers actually bother to cook the fish they catch after their first few attempts; for some mysterious reason, the fish they catch often tastes worse than the fish they can buy from the market in spite of the fact that the fish they catch is that much fresher.
If you haven’t already guessed it from the title, that mysterious reason is the proper bleeding and scaling of the fish. “A properly bled, descaled and gutted fish”, Stephen Moh – a veteran angler – tells us, “will taste much better than one that has not been. Removing the blood from the flesh will remove much of the ‘heavy’ iron taste, ensuring that all that remains is the delicate fragrance of the fish itself.”
Stephen has agreed to walk us through the proper steps of bleeding and descaling the fish (proper gutting, an equally elaborate process, will be covered in the next issue). To begin, all you need is a sharp knife: something which all fishermen should have anyway to facilitate the cutting of lines.
The golden snapper on the left has been bled out while the golden snapper on the right has not. Both have been gutted and washed, but as you can see, the flesh of the fish on the left is a beautiful creamy white while the flesh of the fish on the right is still streaked with blood. This is because the blood is embedded within the flesh of the fish itself and will not be easily removed once the fish is dead. If one were to cook the fish on the right, the fish will have a ‘heavy’ or ‘muddy’ taste that is particularly unpalatable.”
Step 1: Cutting
“While the fish is still alive, you must reach into the operculum (the hard bony flap covering the gills) – being careful not to cut yourself on the edge of the flap – and make a slit along the soft white tissue found beneath the gills. You can do this to either one side or both sides of the fish, depending on how much longer you want the fish to be alive for.”
Step 2: Bleeding Out
“After making the cuts, throw the fish back into the water in a cage or basket to ensure that it does not swim away. As the fish is still alive, throwing it back into the water will allow the natural swimming motion of the fish to bleed itself to death through the slits.”
Step 3: Point of Death
“You can tell that the fish is fully bled out when the fish’s natural colouration appears dull and muted, and the gills stop moving completely. This will take approximately an hour if you only slitted one side of the fish, and about 30 minutes if you slitted both sides of the fish. Proceed immediately to descaling. Remember that you should always descale the fish before gutting it: once a fish has been gutted, the insides of the fish will be hollow, making it significantly more difficult to descale.”
Step 4: Descaling
“Using the back of your knife or – if you have such an implement – a fish scaler, scrape hard against the grain of the scales to descale the fish. Try to make sure that you are scraping away from yourself so that the scales do not fly into your eyes, nose or face. Once dried, a fish scale stuck to your skin can be very hard to spot and remove. “As you approach the head, you may wish to put your thumb into the operculum to get a better grip on the slippery fish.”
Step 5: The Finer Points
“The scales along the broadsides of the fish will be the most obvious portions to descale, but you should also pay some attention to descaling the region around the fins (especially the dorsal and anal fins), the back end of the tail and the region on and around the operculum.”
Step 6: Completion
“You’re done! You now have a fish ready to be gutted and cooked.”