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Handling Fish and Shellfish

Capt. Clark

October 17th Thursday 1805 Forks of Columbia


This river is remarkably Clear and Crouded with Salmon in maney places, I observe in assending great numbers of Salmon dead on the Shores, floating on the water and in the Bottoms which can be seen at the debth of 20 feet. the Cause of the emence numbers of dead Salmon I can't account for So it is I must have seen 3 or 400 dead and maney living.  The Indians, I believe make use of the fish which is not long dead as, I Struck one nearly dead and left him floating, Some Indians in a canoe behind took the fish on board his canoe.

Field dressing and transporting fish is straight forward and includes gutting, bleeding and keeping the fish cool.  Shellfish are different because there is no field dressing required and the shellfish must be keep alive during transport.  Even though fish and shellfish have temperatures equivalent to those of the surrounding waters, they must be kept at temperatures below 40 degrees F until they are processed.


Processing fish depends on the type of fish, its size, and method of cooking.  It can be kept whole, cut into steaks and filleted. If fish are to be stored for future use they can be frozen. Clams and mussels may or may not be removed from their shells before cooking and oysters can be eaten on the half shell raw or removed from the shell and cooked.  Crabs are processed by boiling and then removing the viscera and gills.  The meat is then removed from the shell for immediate use or freezing.


Details on field dressing, transporting and processing fish and shellfish follows.

Field Dressing and Transporting - Fish & Shellfish


After the fish is caught and retained it should be examined carefully to determine if it has any signs of disease or other malformations.  A healthy fish will have clear, bright eyes and dark red gills.

Capt. Lewis

Tuesday March 4th 1806.


We live sumptuously on our wappetoe and Sturgeon. the Anchovey is so delicate that they soon become tainted unless pickled or smoked. the natives run a small stick through their gills and hang them in the smoke of their lodges, or kindle a small fire under them for the purpose of drying them. they need no previous preperation of guting and will cure in 24 hours. the natives do not appear to be very scrupelous about eating them when a little feated.- the fresh sturgeon they keep for many days by immersing it in water.

If you are fishing from a boat keep the fish alive by placing them in a live well or wire mesh basket that is placed in the water.  Fish can also be put on a stringer and left in the water but make sure the fish can move about and use their gills.


Once the fish are removed from the water or live well they need to be placed on ice.


For “on ice” transportation times less than 4 hours:

  • Trout, Salmon and Steelhead - Gut and remove gills

  • Bass, walleye, halibut, sturgeon, catfish and pan fish - Bleed the fish by slicing the gills


For "on ice" times greater than 4 hours: All Fish

  • Gut and remove gills

  • Remove the kidney (black material in rib cage under backbone)

  • Wash inside and out with water

  • Wipe dry inside and out with paper towel

  • Seal in plastic bag and store under ice


For local transportation times nominally less than overnight, the fish must be transported in sealed plastic bags covered with ice in an appropriate sized cooler. The temperature should be maintained between 35-40 F.


If you plan to transport fish from Alaska to Washington or other destinations it will need to be properly processed and packaged before shipment. There are three options for shipping:


  1. one is to have them shipped as part of your luggage

  2. or shipped as air cargo

  3. or packaged and transported privately in a freezer


You should compare prices to determine the most economical way to ship your catch and it will depend on the amount of fish to be shipped.


In either case, the fish can be filleted, vacuum sealed, frozen and packaged by any of the local processing facilities.  


  • These companies would need to receive the fish about 24 hour prior to departure.

  • If you decide not to have the fish processed or packaged by a commercial facility, you will need to obtain the packaging guidelines from the airline for shipping fish.

  • Normally wet ice is not allowed but dry ice up to 5 pounds is allowed without requiring additional documentation.



There are no field dressing requirements for shellfish and the main objective after harvest is to keep them clean and alive until they are processed.  During harvest it is important that you determine if the area that you are harvesting is open to the public, is posted as a safe area and you know the size restrictions.


Crabs and other shellfish must be kept alive while transporting them and the best way is to keep them wet, cool and away from heat sources.  This can be done by wrapping them with a wet cloth/burlap or paper towel and placing them in an open container where the temperature can be maintained between 35 and 40 degrees F.  Shellfish will say fresh for a limited number of days:


  • Crabs will keep several days if kept cool and moist

  • Oysters will keep for 7-10 days and

  • mussels 4-5 days.  


Do not put live shellfish in a closed container or in a container of water because once the oxygen is consumed the shellfish will suffocate.  Also if the shellfish comes in contact with ice or ice water it may stun them and cause them to die.


Shellfish can also be shipped from Alaska to other destinations but the requirements are different from those for fish.  


  • Shellfish would normally be shipped live which require special packaging and handling.  

  • You would need to get the packaging guidelines from the airline.

Processing Fish

Capt. Clark

October 22d Tuesday 1805


I observe great numbers of Stacks of pounded Salmon neetly preserved in the following manner,  after Suffiently Dried it is pounded between two Stones fine, and put into a speces of basket neetly made of grass and rushes of better than two feet long and one foot Diamiter, which basket is lined with the Skin of Salmon Stretched and dried for the purpose, in theis it is pressed down as hard as is possible, when full they Secure the open part with the fish Skins across which they fasten tho the loops of the basket.... thus preserved those fish may be kept Sound and Sweet Several years, as those people inform me.

After you have field dressed and transported the fish, there are a number of ways to process the fish for cooking or freezer storage.  At the end of the process the fish will be either left whole, filleted, or made into steaks.  The best approach varies depending on the size of the fish, type of scales, and personal preference.

Whole Fish


Usually small fish are processed whole because too much meat would be lost if filleted. The following are some processing methods:


  • Small lake and stream trout are best if they are left whole and the only processing needed is to remove the guts, fins, head and tail.  (Removing the head and tail is optional).

  • Small warm water fish such as crappie, bluegill, perch, and bass can be left whole if the scales, intestine, head and tail are removed.  The scales can be removed by scraping from the tail of the fish to the head. After removing the scales, remove the guts, fins, head and tail.

  • The recommended approach for removing the dorsal fin is to cut the fin on each side and pull the fin out.  If the fin is cut off with a knife, bones will be left in the fish.

  • Wash the fish with clean, cold water and dry the fish with a cloth or paper towel.  The fish is now ready to cook or freeze.



Larger fish such as salmon, steelhead, and halibut are prime fish for cutting into steaks for grilling.  To make steaks from the fish you should:


  • Wash the fish before and after the removal of the guts and dorsal fin.

  • The steaks are then cut in one to two inch thick pieces perpendicular to the overall length of the fish.  

  • The steaks should be cleaned and then prepared for freezing or cooking.


Salmon steaks are delicious but you need to work around the bones and skin while eating them.



If done carefully, fish can be filleted without removing the guts or the scales.  There are various ways to fillet the fish but the simplest is to take the following steps:


  • Cut into the fish just in front of the tail, lay the knife horizontally and cut toward the front of the fish just above the backbone.

  • When you reach the ribs, cut through them and continue until you reach the gills.  

  • Remove the knife and cut vertically down to the backbone and remove the fillet.

  • Turn the fillet over, skin side down, and using the tip of the fillet knife carve the rib bones away from the meat.

  • To remove the skin from the meat, place the fillet knife flat and horizontally just above the skin at the tail end of the fillet,

  • Then slice forward keeping the knife just above the skin.  The resulting fillet should have no bones or skin.  

  • Wash the fillet with cold, clean water then pat dry with a cloth or paper towel.  (Note:  with an electric fillet knife, this can be done very quickly).


For salmon, steelhead, and trout there is no need to remove the skin from the fillet because the scales are very small.  Leaving the skin on can improve the texture, flavor and moisture content of the fillet during cooking.  Small pin bones that extend outward from the spine to the skin of the fish can be removed with  a pair of needle nosed pliers.  This can be done before or after cooking.

For walleye, bass, and other scaly fish, the skin can be left on if the fish is scaled before the fillets are removed.   However, if the fish have been caught in an area that is contaminated with pesticide, PCBs and other contaminants that concentrate in the fatty tissues of the fish, it is best to remove the skin.  You should check with your State Health Department and fishing regulations to determine if the fish were caught in contaminated areas.

Sturgeon are a little more difficult to fillet because of their size, tough skin and sharp diamond shaped scutes.  To fillet a sturgeon:


  • Lay it on its side and cut down the back of the fish from the tail to the head.  

  • Begin your cut just outside the top row of scutes or bony plates that run the length of the fish.  

  • As you cut through the skin and meat cut around the notocord (central nervous system cord).  

  • Continue cutting along the length of the fish to carve off the fillet.  

  • Place the fillet skin side down and slice the skin from the fillet.  

  • Remove all red and yellow fatty tissue from the meat.  


This method will leave some good meat on the carcass but it is simple.  Note:  Be careful of the scutes - they are sharp.

Freezing & Storage


The whole fish, steak or fillet must be refrigerated at 40 degrees F immediately after being washed and wiped dry.  If you do not plan to use the fish with one to two days, it is recommended that they be frozen.  


Once the fish have been cleaned and dressed there are a number of options for pre-treating and freezing them.  Fish are classified as either fat fish or lean fish and appropriate pre-treatment will reduce flavor change and control rancidity.  For fat fish such as salmon and tuna, pre-treat the fish by dipping them in an ascorbic acid solution for 20 seconds.  The solution is made by dissolving 2 tablespoons of crystalline ascorbic acid in one quart of cold water.  Lean fish such as flounder and freshwater fish should be dipped in a brine solution for 20 seconds to firm the fish.  The brine is made by dissolving 1/4 cup salt in one quart of cold water.

After pre-treatment the fish can be wrapped in moisture and vapor resistant freezer paper or vacuum packed.  Another option is to wrap them tightly in cling plastic wrap that forms a tight skin around the meat.  These wrapped pieces can then be placed in a heavy-duty plastic freezer bag.  Other methods for freezing fish include , ice glaze and water.


  • Ice Glaze - Place unwrapped fish in the freezer and freeze until the fish is frozen.  Remove the fish and dip it in near-freezing ice water.  Place the fish again in the freezer a few minutes to harden the glaze.  Remove the fish and repeat the glazing until a uniform cover of ice is formed.  Wrap the fish in moisture-vapor resistant freezer paper.


  • Water - Place the fish in a container, cover with water and freeze.  Wrap the container in freezer paper after it is frozen to reduce evaporation.  (Note:  This method will produce a poorer quality product than using the glaze methods).

Processing Shellfish

Capt. Clark

Sunday December 1st 1805


The emence Seas and waves which breake on the rocks & Coasts to the S W. & N W roars like an emence fall at a distance, and this roaring has continued ever Since our arrival in the neighbourhood of the Sea Coast which has been 24 days Since we arrived in Sight of the Great Western (for I cannot Say Pacific) Ocian as I have not Seen one pacific day Since my arrival in its vicinity, and its waters are foaming and petially perpetually breake with emenc waves on the Sands and rockey Coasts, tempestous and horiable.

Once the shellfish have been transported to their final destination, it is important to check them and determine if they are still alive.


  • For crabs you need to look for movement but this will not work with clams, mussels and oysters.

  • If the shell is open or has a slight gap give them a light tap and if the shell closes tightly, they are still alive and safe to consume.  

  • Any crabs or shellfish that are determine to be dead should be discarded.


At this point you need to decide when the shellfish will be used. Shellfish is best when it is eaten fresh and If the shellfish will be used within a couple days all you need to do is keep them refrigerated.  Place a wet towel over the live shellfish and put them in a location in the refrigerator where cold air will circulate around them.


If you plan on freezing them, crabs should be cooked fully before freezing.  Clams, mussels and oysters should be frozen uncooked.

Processing Crab


There are a number of different ways to process crab and the most important first step is to decide how to kill them and whether to clean them before or after boiling in hot water.  


  • Crabs can be placed directly into boiling water and will immediately die

  • They can be placed in fresh water for 20-30 minutes which causes them to drown or

  • They can be stunned by placing them in ice water and then place into boiling water.

  • Also they can be killed by sticking an ice pick into the crab on the underside just behind the mouth or

  • They can be killed with a blow to the abdomen.

Placing the crab directly into boiling water can cause them to shed their legs and retain water in the shell.  This is hard on the crab and may also result in tough meat.


Once the crab has been killed it can be placed into boiling water and then cleaned or it can be cleaned before boiling.  To clean the crab before or after boiling, pry off the back, break the crab in two , remove the viscera, and pull off the gill filaments.

The are various way to cook crab and any of the following ways are can be used:


  1. Boil the crab in a salt water solution made by adding 1/4 cup salt per gallon of fresh water.  Bring the water to a boil and then add the crabs and boil the water for about 20 minutes. If the crabs are cleaned before boiling the time can be reduced to about 12 minutes.  Seafood seasoning can also be added during cooking to give the crab meat a nice flavor.  

  2. A second method for cooking the crab is to steam them. This can be done by placing them on a rack above the water and periodically turning them .  Cooking time is about 20 minutes.  Salt and seasoning can be added.


After the crabs are cooked, take them from the pot and wash them off with cold water.  Remove the meat from the legs and body cavity.  The meat can eaten immediately or used in various crab recipes.  The freshly cooked crab meat can be kept in a refrigerator for 1-2 days.  If the crab meat is to be frozen for later use, do not remove the meat from the legs or body.

If you catch the crabs in a coastal area where there are marinas and commercial fish process facilities there may be a commercial crab cooking pot that can be used for a small fee.  An  easier way to get good crab meat without going through all of the above steps is to go to a good seafood market and buy crabs that are already boiled.  Also most markets will clean the crab for you but you will need to remove the meat from the legs and body.

Processing Clam and Oysters


Processing clams and oysters begins with cleaning the exterior of the shell, removing the meat, cutting out the internal organs and thoroughly washing the meat.  Removing the meat from the shell can be done by running a knife along the inner surface of each shell to cut the adductor muscles.  Also this may be done by pouring boiling water over the shell until the shells to pop open.  This should only take 5-10 seconds; do not soak in boiling water.  Remove the meat, slit the neck or siphon, and remove the stomach.  The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has a website with details on cleaning Razor Clams. After cleaning and washing the meat, it is ready to be used in any of the numerous recipes.


Wash oysters with a strong spray or brush before removing the meat.  Use a knife to pry open (shuck) the oyster and collect the meat in a strainer.   After the meat is washed and drained it is ready for cooking.  


Clams and oysters can be frozen either in their shell or after they have been shucked.  Check to be sure the oysters and clams are alive before you freeze them in their shells.  If the clams and oysters are shucked, drain the meat and pack in a freezer container leaving 1/2 inch head space. (Note:  Freezing will change the texture and flavor of oysters)

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