I am getting into fishing (I bought an entry-level spinner and plan on going to some nearby rivers/lakes) and have been reading a lot of conflicting information in regards to the sequence of events that transpire from the time you catch the fish, to the time you eat it.

Obviously, first you must catch the fish, which as a newbie will probably be a bit difficult for me. Once I catch my first fish and determine that it's of legal size and is a species I'd like to eat, then I need to immediately begin preparing it.

I've read that bleeding fish (cutting the gills) helps remove the gamey odor that a lot of fish have, as well as removing certain undesirable toxins.

But what do I do if I'm not done fishing yet? What if it's still early in the day and I want to keep fishing for a few more hours? Obviously then, I need a way of preserving the fish so that it doesn't taint before I even get home. The thing is, I don't like the idea of keeping a fish alive once I catch it. Not judging others, just personally would rather kill it as soon as I catch it and put it out of the stress/misery of being caught & wounded.

So, given everything I've read, I'm wondering if my following solution is viable, and if not, why:

  1. Catch the fish, and kill it immediately (probably a knife through its brain is what I've found to be the quickest/humane method)
  2. Bleed the fish, totally
  3. Throw it in a cooler full of ice, and continue fishing
  4. When I get home, clean/fillet it

The only thing I'm worried about here is that perhaps the fish will somehow spoil from the time I throw it on ice, to the time I get home (which should never be longer than 6 - 8 hours). Ideas?

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    I've bled them when I got back home after carrying a stringer a couple miles in the heat. Never had a gamey fish. – Don Branson Nov 6 '13 at 2:12
  • Thanks @DonBranson (+1) - is there anything "wrong" with bleeding them right then and there (immediately after catching/killing them)? Does bleeding them expose them to bacteria/infection/etc. that would be mitigated if I did wait until I got back home? Thanks again! – TicketMonster Nov 6 '13 at 11:30
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    I guess that depends how you're going to transport them. If you bleed them and then move them, you'll need to keep the dirt off, and probably keep them cool, too. – Don Branson Nov 6 '13 at 16:20
  • Thanks again, @DonBranson (+1) - yes I'd be placing the fish directly into a cooler full of ice. Would that keep my fish "safe" after bleeding them? – TicketMonster Nov 6 '13 at 16:31
  • That should be fine. I'm not a doctor or microbiologist or anything, though. :) Besides, you're cooking the fish later, and that should kill anything that does grow on it. – Don Branson Nov 6 '13 at 16:34

It depends on what you have access to.

If you have plenty of cooling, then gut, bleed, and ice immediately. However only do this if you can keep it cold. This requires a LOT of ice because you have to have enough ice to bring the fish down to near freezing and keep it there.

If you cannot keep the fish cold then you want to keep it alive. There are many methods for this from the basic stringer, to live well, and live nets. The basic concept is the same.

I will mention that you have to take care with nets and stringers. Other fish/animals may like the meal you've tied up for them. ;)

  • you don't actually need to keep it cold. A fresh fish won't spoil even if you leave it outside for a few hours. – Michael Martinez Aug 5 '14 at 16:47
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    @MichaelMartinez -- That is definitely not true in south Georgia. – Russell Steen Aug 6 '14 at 14:23
  • You're probably right about warm humid climates. I don't know, my experience is in the desert southwest. – Michael Martinez Aug 6 '14 at 16:45
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    In the temperate Pacific Northwest it's fairly common to gut the fish and put them in a creel. You want to put some grass or burlap between the fish so that air can move around them, then you can wet down the creel so the evaporation naturally cools the fish. – funwhilelost Apr 20 '16 at 1:13
  • Yep, with a stringer.. It's good to double check that you aren't feeding the local turtle population while you fish the rest of the day!... Classic "Fish Story" from my father-in-law. – jdrefahl Jul 17 at 9:36

Important to note that specific state regulations could apply to your situation. For instance, my state has a fishing regulation which states:

"It is unlawful for any person to possess a fish in any form or condition other than whole while on or when unloading the fish from a boat, while wading, or while fishing from shore on any waters in this state where a fishing license is required."

It could probably be argued by a warden that by bleeding/gutting the fish, it is no longer 'whole'. While it might not be the prescribed method of anglers, I have seen many individuals bleed the fish (specifically catfish) by removing a section of the tail. This would absolutely put you in violation of the above regulation.

Make sure you have thoroughly read and understand all of your states fishing regulations and there are not any rules similar to the one in my state (OH)

  • Goodness - the "Land of the Free" does tie people up with a lot of rules! What's the thinking behind the "whole fish" regulation? – Tullochgorum Jul 5 '17 at 12:01
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    @Tullochgorum my guess is it is to prevent people from taking slightly undersized fish and claiming they were legal prior to being cleaned/bled/etc. – Erik Jul 6 '17 at 2:20
  • @Tullochgorum In addition to Erik's suggestion, it could also be to prevent you from cutting the small fish up to use as bait for more big ones. Either way, the law is very poorly crafted. – Loduwijk Sep 28 '17 at 21:30
  • I know this is an old post, but I just read the same thing tonight and was a bit surprised. It did answer the same question I had above, and made my choices very clear. I'll be travelling to Lake Erie tomorrow (about 2.5 hrs north of where I live) and a cooler of ice will have to do until I get home. – Tim S. Jun 16 at 4:11

There is no reason to kill, bleed and gut the fish immediately. The ideal way to preserve freshness is to keep the fish alive as long as possible. Depending on your situation this is best accomplished via a livewell (found in most recreational fishing boats), if fishing from shore, a traditional fish stringer or a wire basket are your best bets. Once you are done fishing, then you can clean the fish entirely.


Liveswells: Livewells & Aerators

Stringer: Berkley®-Fish-Stringer

Basket: Berkley®-Floating-Wire-Basket


I suggest keeping it alive in a keep net. That way all of your problems disappear.


I fish daily in a kayak and have caught and eaten thousands of fish from snapper to mackerel to wahoo. I throw them in the hull of the kayak with no ice and continue to fish, sometimes for several hours. Been doing this for years and have never had an issue.


After you kill and gut the fish, then clean it (wash it and scale it, if it needs scaling.) I don't know what you mean by "bleeding" a fish: I only ever gut it. After doing this, you do not actually need to put it in the cooler. You can leave it out for a couple hours, it will not spoil. This has been my experience - I've done this, and then cooked the fish when arrived at home later. If you stick it on ice, it will preserve even longer, so no worries there.

EDIT: someone mentioned that fresh fish will spoil if left outside even for a short period of time in South Georgia. Should probably be aware of this. I can't say whether it's true or not: my experience is entirely in the dry desert southwest and Rocky Mountains.


I kayak fish and do it this way:

  • catch fish

  • cut through the "throat" by putting the fish on its back (belly up), inserting a knife through one gill opening to the other, and then cutting "upward" to sever the little connection of flesh directly under the gills (where the belly becomes the chin)

  • bend the head backward to snap the neck (spinal column)

  • (this step I only do for certain species) remove guts and gills

  • let fish bleed out for a few minutes

  • put in cooler with big slabs of ice that I freeze in cake pans or juice / pop bottles that are full of ice

On warm days in Nova Scotia this will get me through a long day of fishing with fresh and high quality fish. On smaller fish I can do the above without a knife. It satisfies numerous personal requirements;

  • a quick humane kill

  • no fish flopping around in my kayak as they suffocate (a terrible way to die, by the way)

  • the heart beats for a minute after you snap the spine so blood gets pumped out where you cut under the gills and this improves the quality of the meat

  • fish are kept cool until I can fillet them that night at home

Just watch that your ice doesn't melt, leaving your fish sitting in water, which can soften the flesh. If your ice is melting a lot, drain the water out.


Your concern for keeping the fish alive longer than necessary is valid. I used to like to club fish to kill them immediately. However I now typically bleed by cutting the gills as you describe. This kills the fish rather quickly if done properly. It also offers other benefits which may or may not be important in any given situation.

First, it helps diminish the amount of blood getting on the flesh when fileting. Despite years of semi-regular practice, I still often nick an artery along the spine when fileting larger fish (like Striped Bass or Bluefish). This invariably bleeds all over that filet, and can be difficult to rinse off. Bleeding first vastly reduces the amount of blood that is released when this happens.

Second, for some species it really does mean the difference between a nice palatable dinner and a super-fishy tasting/smelling meal. The difference is most pronounced in oily fish like mackerel and bluefish. There is also a long tradition around here of bleeding sharks that are headed to the dinner table to help remove uric acid (I believe) and other substances that would foul the meat.


Bleeding really only needs to be done for fish that have really bloody meat. These fish are often "athlete fish" such as Jacks or Tunas.

From what it sounds like you are going to be fishing in rivers and lakes, this is not a situation where you are going to need to bleed the fish. Fish like trout, bass and walleye have white meat so you won't need to do this to them before you fillet them.

  • Welcome to the site, this is a great start to a good answer. Do you may want to consider editing your answer to address the other part of the asker's question on what to do with the fish between catching it and heading back to shore for the day. Consider taking the tour for more information on how the site works and how to write a great answer. – Malco Jun 21 '17 at 15:20
  • This is the only close to correct answer though... Most shallow water does not need "bleeding" - the blood will gather in the swim bladder, you can clean it when you clean the fish. Simple and easy. Deep water fish will have a pressurized swim bladder, which will push the blood into the meat - unless you bleed it. So, while i disagree with the reasons in this answer, the recommendations I support. – Stian Yttervik Jul 11 '17 at 10:21

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