February 13, 2022
By Dan Johnson
For many anglers, the opportunity to keep a few fish for the table is one of the most important aspects of ice fishing. In-Fisherman has long advocated the practice of selective harvest—keeping fish of the right size and species so as not to negatively affect the fishery—as well as caring for kept fish in a manner that maximizes their flavor, texture, and overall palatability come dinnertime.
Fish care is a concern no matter the season. When fishing in hot weather, keeping caught fish cool so their flesh doesn’t deteriorate is critical. On ice-fishing trips when the mercury dips below freezing, our focus shifts to keeping the fish from turning into ice blocks.
Certainly, more than a few icemen are happy to let their catches freeze solid, then thaw them for cleaning at a future time. But as In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has pointed out over the years, fish that freeze usually aren’t as distinctive on the table as fish that haven’t been frozen.
“In moderately cold weather I pack fish in snow or slush in a 5-gallon bucket,” says veteran angler and guide Brian Brosdahl. “Make sure the fish isn’t touching the edge of the pail or it may still freeze. In bitter conditions, slush quickly turns into ice, and cold penetrates a snow-packed bucket fast, too.”
To better protect fish from the freeze, Brosdahl uses a 6-gallon insulated Sit-N-Fish bucket from Frabill. “It has a snap-on lid that doubles as a padded seat,” he says. He often uses water inside an insulated bucket. “Be aware of state regulations regarding water transportation,” he says. “You may need to bring your own water if you plan to transport the fish in it once you’re off the ice, because some states don’t allow you to move lake water due to concerns of transporting aquatic invasive species.”
Bringing water from home also allows you to control the water temperature, which is important if you want to keep fish alive and well—a concern for ice fishing tournament anglers in catch-and-release events like those on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit. I’ve also held fish briefly while I geared up to take photographs of them. Held in such a manner, the fish can be safely released after a few quick photos.
“Dipping or scooping water from the lake is fine if you just want to keep the fish from freezing,” Brosdahl says. “But surface water is close to 32°F, colder than the 35°F to 38°F water fish come from farther below the ice. So dropping them into the super-cooled water can send them into shock.
“Keep in mind, you don’t need to lug six gallons of water around the ice,” he says. “A third of a bucket or less is plenty for keeping a few fish fresh for the table.”
Like Stange, Brosdahl isn’t a fan of frozen fish. “The flesh is never as good as that of fish that have never been frozen,” he says. “Cleaning thawing fish is tricky, too, since partially thawed meat often breaks off in chunks and causes a knife to cut unevenly.”
In a similar vein, he abhors the sight of kept fish being treated badly. “One of my peeves is seeing people toss fish like lawn darts or kick them around the ice,” he says. “That bruises meat, not to mention disrespects the catch.”
Coolers are another option for protecting fish from the cold. “These days, fish that are going home with me never spend more than a moment on the ice before going into a cooler,” Stange says. “New-age coolers like those from Yeti and other companies have changed the way we keep things cold in warm weather, and they also protect our catches in the frigid conditions we face on the ice. The Yeti 35 or 45 are perfect for most situations, particularly for keeping panfish and small walleyes. One of them always rides with me in the back of the truck or in a tow sled if we’re using wheelers or sleds to travel. The advanced insulation of the cooler, along with the residual body temperature of the fish, keeps them from freezing.”
The more fish you have in a cooler, the more residual heat is available to keep Jack Frost at bay. Conversely, in a heated shack, it may be necessary to sprinkle a few ice shavings on the fish to keep them cool. When the mercury dips below zero, Stange puts an unfrozen commercial ice block like the Yeti Ice in the cooler. “A room-temperature 2-pound Yeti Ice keeps fish from freezing when I’m in bitter conditions,” he says. Both the Yeti cooler and Yeti Ice are easy to wash clean at the end of the day.
Stange: “The point is to keep fish from freezing. You don’t necessarily need a high-end cooler to be successful. Before Yeti came on the scene, I used a Coleman Extreme cooler for many years. Just start using whatever cooler you have.”
On-ice livewells are another option. Stange began experimenting with them decades ago, and first wrote about them in Ice Fishing Secrets, published by In-Fisherman in 1991. The idea is simple: drill a series of side-by-side holes not quite through the ice, remove the shavings and chisel a small hole in the bottom of one hole to allow water to flood the “icewell.”
“I use icewells to keep fish from freezing like rocks in remote backcountry areas,” Brosdahl says. “You can also use the auger’s pilot point to punch a small hole into open water.” He says that air temperature can be a limiting factor on icewell effectiveness. “When it gets super cold, they freeze over,” he says.
Keeping Cleaned Fish
Freshly caught fish have no equal on the table, but sometimes it’s impossible to eat them right away. If you want to keep fresh fillets in the refrigerator for a few days, don’t simply wrap them in a bag and stick them on a shelf. Most refrigerators are set at about 40°F, so additional steps are necessary for maximum freshness and flavor. Turning the fridge’s thermostat down to near freezing is an option, but that usually causes other delicate edibles to freeze.
One method is to partially fill a bowl with crushed ice. Wrap the fish tightly in cling wrap or seal them in a plastic bag with the air squeezed out, then surround and cover them with the ice and cover the bowl with cling wrap, too. Drain meltwater so your fish doesn’t soak.
When freezing for longer-term storage, precautions are required to keep fish from losing quality through dehydration and oxidation. “Freezer burn” is an advanced stage of dehydration caused by using the wrong wrap or improper wrapping. Oxidation is a result of poor packaging, either the wrong wrap or failing to remove air from the package before freezing—which causes oxygen to combine with fats and oils.
The idea is to seal in moisture and keep oxygen at bay. Today, vacuum-sealing machines are readily available and work well. When they aren’t handy, wrapping fish tightly in two layers of freezer grade cling wrap, followed by an external layer of wax-coated freezer wrap or aluminum foil, is an easy and inexpensive option. Write the date frozen, fish species, and other pertinent details on the package.
If you build an icewell—especially big ones for holding large predators—mark them with a stick before you leave, so no one drives or steps into them after they glaze over. And remember that the water in a livewell is right at 32°F, so it doesn’t work to keep fish in a livewell for long if you intend to release them. Livewells are for fish you intend to harvest.
Keep sacks and stringers are additional fish-keeping options. Clam’s Fish-Well is a mesh bag with flotation foam to keep the bag from sinking. It’s available in a 9-inch diameter size for use in a 10-inch hole. The bag is about 30 inches long and has a zippered opening that makes it easy to remove fish. Meanwhile, the Frank Outdoors Ice Well Live Well is a high-impact plastic fish basket that fits 8- to 10-inch holes. For transportation the basket slips neatly into a 5-gallon bucket.
Veteran ice-fishing guide Bernie Keefe of Granby, Colorado, pursues lake trout all winter long in high-country. Trophy trout are released immediately, but he and his clients selectively harvest small trout. His first choice for preserving taste and texture is immediate processing. “I clean them right away and put them in a cooler,” he says “First, I bleed them by making a slit up the throat with a sharp knife. After they fish bleed out, I fillet them and put the fillets in a cooler. When this isn’t possible, an icewell or stringer keeps my fish from freezing.”
*Dan Johnson is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Brian Brosdahl, 218/340-6051; Bernie Keefe, 970/531-2318.