Any anglers who have spent a lot of time on the water know the thrill of “getting hot” as well as the amazing reward of delicious fish right out of the lake and into the frying pan. But what about those big fish you need to put on ice and fillet for later? How long will that fish stay good?
Ungutted fish that is completely untreated is good for 6-12 hours, while it can last for 24-48 hours on ice if you bleed the fish first. Make sure to keep the cooler loaded in ice, the cooler the temperature stays the better though fish should be gutted and filleted before being frozen.
How long you can safely keep that delicious fish on ice is important because it’s not only a food quality issue, it is a safety issue, as well.
How Long Before Ungutted Fish Goes Bad?
It is important to note there are a few good reasons for not gutting the fish right away. Many times if you can wait before gutting the fish and putting it on ice that is for the better.
|Fish Condition||Low End of Safe Time||Maximum Safe Time Limit|
|Ungutted||6 hours||12 hours|
|Bled & Ungutted on Ice||24+ hours||48 hours|
|Bled, Ungutted on Ice, then Refrigerated||36 hours||48 hours|
|Bled, Ungutted on Ice, then Froze||Several Months||Multiple months, but taste may decline over time & can’t be re-frozen once thawed|
Keep in mind that bleeding the fish is an important step and should be done when storing fish even if you are storing them on ice ungutted until you have a better set up for actually carving out the fillets (don’t forget that quality fillet knife!).
Gutted fish doesn’t keep on ice like steak or pork chops, but it does compete with ground meats when properly bled, gutted, and treated. That said don’t push the upper limits of these storage times if you don’t have to. The sooner the fish is froze or tossed in the frying pan, the better.
The first step is bleeding the ungutted fish. This is crucial because it makes sure to release liquids and fluids in the fish’s body that you don’t want to sit, stagnate, or flavor the meat. Once drained the ungutted fish is in a much better position to go on ice and store for a longer period of time without worry of contamination or severe loss of taste.
Get the fish on ice and cool. Whether in the refrigerator, covered with ice, or in a cooler, the fish must remain cold. This is absolutely crucial to make sure bacteria doesn’t set in or that the bacteria, bile, and digestive juices in the fish’s stomach don’t affect the rest of the fish.
Once this happens there’s no undoing it and the fish will rapidly spoil.
Keep water off of it. Unlike meat like steak or chops that can be sealed and in ice water in the cooler, fish gets mushy when soaked in water, even once bled and drained before filleting. Once you’re in the storage phase you need to make sure it is on ice.
Also if you plan to vacuum seal, that always needs to be done with fish fillets. Vacuum sealing an ungutted fish just…isn’t even remotely a good idea.
While there are some outdoor magazines and similar sources that say more than 48 hours is fine as long as it remains heavily iced, these are from personal experiences and not science-backed averages. Are there times longer icing of fish worked fine? Sure – but you’re playing with fire after the time tables in the above chart.
Can You Freeze Ungutted Fish?
For a short time the answer is yes. You still want to bleed the fish, but you can freeze an ungutted fish and clean them later on.
If the fish was properly bled and prepared ahead of time there is actually a chance that a frozen fish will be fine for months.
This isn’t the best solution, and if you’re looking to store the fish in a freezer for that long there really isn’t a good reason not to break the fish down into fillets to freeze in Ziploc bags or else vacuum seal for the freezer/fridge.
This not only saves you issues with potential mushiness of the fish flesh or having to still cut the fish for fillets later, but freezing can lead to other issues. Since organs in the fish are still there (including the stomach), this can sometimes lead to it being ruptured.
This can damage the meat, make it taste terrible, and in some cases even make it nearly inedible depending on the extent of the issue.
For short-term storage freezing an ungutted fish doesn’t make much sense. Storing it on ice does.
Keeping Ungutted Fish from Going Bad
The point of leaving fish ungutted isn’t to avoid making fillets, it’s just keeping the meat in the best possible condition for as long as possible. Once the fillets are made they should be cleaned and either cooked or prepped immediately for storing.
Personally I’m a big fan of the sealed Ziploc bag with a little bit of water and as little air as possible.
This is the form that allows them to be good in a freezer for months with some reports suggesting that when properly frozen they can last for up to a full year. This, of course, assumes you bled and dressed them properly.
Keeping the fish ungutted for a while can help preserve the meat early on so whenever you eat your fish you can enjoy because you have the best possible tasting fish.
Remember that the ice is an absolute necessity to keep the fish in good shape. Even ungutted fish can go bad quickly in hot weather, or even mild weather. You want actual ice to keep the temperature as low as possible.
Properly iced, you have 1-2 days for sure without being likely to run into any problems.
As said before there are those who have pushed their luck, which is never advisable if you can afford it, but if it’s not avoidable make sure you keep that ice loaded over the fish!
Also if you’re ice fishing in the Arctic or in freezing temperatures then you aren’t going up against the clock here since it is one of the few times when the weather is actually on your side.
What If You Don’t Have Ice?
Keeping fish fresh without ice is much harder. There are limited options. Livewells to extend the fish’s life to get you closer to time to clean them is one step that helps.
The point is keeping the fish in the best condition possible until you’re ready to cook them or freeze them.
There isn’t a fast way around it: you need ice. You need cold storage. The only other option is to salt the fish which is a classic long-term survival technique for keeping meat but radically changes the flavor.
You can soak the fish extensively when prepping to try and remove the salt, but you should expect some saltiness after that process.
Otherwise you need the ice and the cold to keep even ungutted fish in good shape for any considerable amount of time.
While you do get a little bit of extra time with the fish remaining whole as opposed to already gutted into fillets, you still want to get fish fully refrigerated, frozen, or fried as quickly as possible. Fish right out of the lake is an amazing meal, and even if you have to wait a few hours it’s still okay as long as you have the right amount of ice and keep an eye on temperature.
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