Many days on the river watching others catch their fish and seeing what happens next, I’ve learned a few things over the years, especially by watching the old timers and just studying what makes a clean fillet of salmon.
So after the the joy that happens after landing your salmon and winning the fight comes the confused face of new fishermen and fisherwomen of what exactly is supposed to happen next.
Speaking humanely, the first thing you should do for the fish’s sake is to bonk it on top of the head. Usually using something hard such as a fish bonker, or even a glass Arizona Green Tea bottle. If you hit the fish directly on top of the head between the eyes you will mostly likely kill it instantly. A good way to tell if you have accomplished this is to look at its eyes. When a salmon is still alive, its eyes will be most likely facing down. If you landed a pain-relieving blow to the salmon, its eyes will usually be facing straight out, directly at you. I ALWAYS “bonk” my fish once I land it and I know that it’s going home with me for dinner. Anything you are not going to kill, please keep in the water and try to be as gentle as possible pulling the hook out and letting it swim away. The mortality rates are still considerably high for catch-and-release fish. If the fish is a legal fish to keep and you have been using something such as bait, which they swallow, and the hook was swallowed that fish is most likely going to die. This is the standard ethics most fishermen follow.
The next big thing that you should do is to bleed the fish. Bleeding the fish causes all of the blood that is throughout the meat to drain out of the fish. Sometimes even some fresh-caught salmon that was filleted and vacuum-sealed shortly after can still go bad because the blood wasn’t drained out of the fish.
The way I do this is simple. Simply stick your finger under the fish’s bottom gills on both sides and lift the fish up and jerk down. It will rip the main bloodline from under the gills and cause the fish to start bleeding out. Some people use a knife to accomplish this exact same thing. Bleeding a salmon is especially a good idea if you plan on keeping the roe (salmon eggs) for bait to be cured. Rule of thumb with attaining roe for bait out of a fish is that there can be no blood in the skein. Some blood in the cured eggs can make a difference of catching fish or not.
One of the biggest things I see on the river is the meat that is wasted on fish that have been filleted. There is no one right way to fillet a salmon. My method is a lot different that other people’s methods but it’s what I’m comfortable with. Take your time and figure out which way you are the most comfortable with. Over the years (and a few times slicing my hand open), I’ve learned to get most of the meat off the salmon and can do it pretty proficiently. Just try a few different methods and settle for the one that works best for you.
Another huge part of filleting fish is a proper, sharp fillet knife. What I’ve learned with fillet knives is you pay for what you get. Some of the better brands are the Dexter Russell’s and Cutco’s Fisherman’s Friend. I never thought I would own anything by Cutco but it’s absolutely amazing. If you are cleaning your fish on a cleaning station that is close to the fisher areas, make sure you toss your carcasses far enough out so it doesn’t attract bears to other people cleaning their fish. This is especially true on the Russian River.
Lastly, you have other options for processioning your fish. If I’m short on time, I will take my fish filleted to a fish-processing place such as 10th&M Seafoods in downtown Anchorage for vacuum sealing. They do also offer full fish processing which includes filleting a whole fish but if you get decent at filleting then the price of vacuum sealing goes down. When in a bind on time I’ve found out this is the cheapest and easiest solution. You should also make sure all your seals are nice and tight and will not break in the freezer over a short time. Alaska is having one of the most incredible sockeye runs on the Kenai that I have seen. There is already good numbers of second run sockeye mixing in with first run sockeye. With that much fish to catch for everybody, I hope this helps with the ‘what-after?’