Bleed the red from your blues for whiter filets.
Last year was the first time I tried bleeding a bluefish out, after decades of pursuing those hard-fighting fish. I once read that bleeding fish out was too messy, and didn’t make much difference in the quality of the fillets. Boy was that guy wrong!
Once you land a bluefish, the fight is far from over. Those fish will fight and bite for as long as they live. So I did what many of us do, toss the fish in the cooler, let it thrash around and bloody up the cooler, deal with the mess later, and keep on fishing. Wrong again!
Bleeding bluefish, and really any other fish, is simple, neat, humane and results in more mild, flavorful meat. Chances are you have the tools already in your fishing tackle arsenal: a five-gallon bucket and a pair of game shears. Fish and game shears are available from your local fishing tackle retailer or online.
This cut-throat method works best on smaller “good-eating size” blues, the tailor 3- to 4-pound specimens that set up in my core fishing area last summer. But any size bluefish, from snapper to slammer, will result in a tasty fillet if you let it bleed. And you can bleed a fish in your boat or on shore, long as you have your bucket and shears – and clean saltwater nearby.
While you’re setting up to fish, fill your bucket about half-way with salt water. This will minimize the sloshing, especially on a boat. Once you catch a fish you’re going to keep for the table, grab the bluefish by its shoulders, behind its gills. What you’re looking for now is the fish’s collar, that triangular area above the pectoral fins and below the gills. Hold your fish vertically over the bucket and insert the shears past one gill and out the other. Then snip.
Make sure you cut through both lower portions of the gills, where they connect to the collar. Your fish will bleed immediately into the bucket. Drop your quarry into the bucket, head first. The process shouldn’t take more than a few seconds. The fish will thrash for a couple minutes until it expires, pumping its blood out. Quick and humane for the fish, rather than slowly suffocating in the cooler. Neat and easy for you, and your taste buds will thank you later.
You may have to wait until the fish flares its gills out before making your snip, or you may need to work the shears under the gill plates. Make your cut clean through the gills and collar too. A quality shear will make this easy. If the fishing’s hot and heavy, and if the fish are small enough, you can double up on the blues in the bucket. You’ll know when to change out the water – it’ll look like tomato juice!
All of that blood is what gives bluefish its bad rap on the dinner table. The flesh of a bled-out bluefish is lighter, almost white, compared to the purplish-gray fillet of a blue that’s just plopped in the cooler. Lay your bled-out fish on ice in your cooler to firm up for easy filleting later. Or you can finish the entire cleaning process right on the boat or shore, if you have a fillet board handy.
Regardless of when you do the filleting, save some clean saltwater to rinse off fillets if you can. Nothing works like saltwater to rinse off any remaining blood on a fillet, plus it helps firm up the flesh. A saltwater rinse will also help break down the oils on the blue’s flesh, which is another complaint about bluefish fillets. Simply swish the fillets in the bucket a couple times, then put the fish in a cooler tray or baggies for the trip home.
I’ve heard many anglers, somewhat snobbishly, say they can’t eat bluefish and others say they can only eat them fresh. I’ll counter that both of those boasts are the result of improper care in the field. Bleeding and icing down are paramount to top quality fillets, especially when it comes to bluefish. Bleed out any blue you bring to the table, rinse and ice it down well. I guarantee your fillets will be a cut above the ordinary.