The Benefits of Bleeding Out Fish

When done properly, bleeding out your catch can leave you with cleaner and better-tasting fillets.

The Benefits of Bleeding Out Fish

It's clear to see why bleeding out your catch is a good idea when two fillets are shown side by side, one bled and one not.

Taking care of fish you plan to release to the grease doesn’t have to wait until you get home or back to the docks. Just like any animal destined for the dinner table, there are extra steps you can take to create a more delicious meal. One of those steps in exsanguination, or bleeding out, your fish. Here’s why I started, and continue, to bleed my fish prior to cleaning.

I started bleeding out my fish when I saw other anglers doing it to their catch of whitefish on Green Bay. It made sense at the time, and it still does. If you cut the gills after you decide to keep the fish, the blood will be mostly out of the fish by the time you’re ready to fillet. Besides a cleaner fillet, bleeding out the fish also kills the fish more quickly than letting them flop in a bucket or on the ice. This reduced flopping prevents the fish meat from getting bruised and damaged. 

The process of bleeding out the fish is simple. I reach a finger in behind the gill plate and pull out the gills. You can also use a scissors or knife to cut where the bottom of the gills meet at the throat.

Not only will your fillets be nearly blood-free, you will also be rewarded with a cleaner workspace. I use old newspaper when cleaning fish, so removing a layer when it gets too dirty isn’t much of a hassle, but since I started bleeding out my fish, I find I’m using less paper. I’ll be honest, cleaning fish is my least favorite part of fishing, so I’ll do anything I can do to cut down on my time with my fillet knife in hand. As you can see in the picture below, the bled fish (on bottom) is going to leave considerably less blood on my paper than the fish that wasn’t bled (top.)

Two whitefish from a recent fishing trip show the difference between a fish that was bled out (on bottom) and one that wasn't (on top.)
Two whitefish from a recent fishing trip show the difference between a fish that was bled out (on bottom) and one that wasn't (on top.)

My 4-year-old daughter is quite interested when I bring home a bucket of fish. She wants to see them and poke them of course. During the cleaning process for this batch of fish, she liked how they looked prior to cleaning and after they were fried, but not so much when they were skinned fillets. I mention this because it’s important to have a clean presentation when preparing fish for friends and family that maybe only otherwise eat fish at a restaurant where they don’t see the behind-the-scenes action. Your dinner guests may very well be turned off to your offer of a fish fry if they catch a glimpse of a bloody bowl of fish fillets. 

Bleeding out fish isn’t without its potential drawbacks. When ice fishing, it’s commonplace to simply throw your catch on the ice until it’s time to head in for the day. You can imagine the “red flag” left behind from a pile of fish that have been caught, bled, and left to lay on the ice for a few hours. If you’re on a hot bite and planning to return in the near future, you could find your secret spot is no longer a secret if someone happens to put two and two together when they see the blood left on the ice. I suggest an extra 5-gallon bucket for carrying your fish and storing them while on the ice. This will also slow down the freezing process, making cleaning your fish easier when you get home. On the flip side of the calendar, when I’m fishing open water in the warmer months I usually add a bag of ice to my livewell or fish cooler to keep the fish cool and prevent them from getting mushy in the heat.

As for taste, I could only tell a slight difference between the fillets from the fish that was bled and the one that wasn’t. Though my experimentation isn’t very extensive, simply because I’ve been bleeding out just about every fish I’ve kept (except panfish because they don’t seem to get bloody enough to make a difference) for the last few years. 

Try it next time you’re catching some fish you’re planning to keep. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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