Let it bleed?

If you’ve ever read anything about bluefish fishing, you’ll know that every single fishing authority, either legitimate or self-styled, professional or amateur, says that it’s critical to bleed a bluefish. You have to do this immediately, while the fish is still alive. If you don’t, they all say, your bluefish will taste fishy and nasty.

But I’ve always wondered about that. When you filet a bluefish that hasn’t been bled, there’s not much blood unless you pierce the body cavity (not – ahem – that I’ve ever done that). I would have thought that, if there were an appreciable amount of blood in the muscle tissue, you’d know. I mean, bluefish flesh is kind of gray-blue and blood is bright red. It would stand out.

Bleeding a bluefish is, to my mind, a nasty business. Different people have different methods, but most people do some variation of holding the fish by the tail and slicing through the gills. The fish has to be alive so the heart pumps the blood out of it.

There is disagreement about the degree to which fish feel pain. Some people – catch-and-release fishermen, for example – contend that fish feel nothing. Others believe that a fish doesn’t like getting pulled out of the water by a hook through its mouth any more than you would. Most people occupy the vast middle ground.

I lack the ichthyological expertise to have an opinion on fish pain, but anyone who’s ever hooked a fish can tell you that they certainly don’t seem to enjoy it. All I know is that I want the fish I catch to suffer as little as possible.

This desire led to an embarrassing incident at Bass Pro Shops a while back.

It wasn’t really my fault. It was Jen’s. Jen, who lives in England and blogs at Milkweed & Teasel, wrote about killing fish with what the British call a ‘fish priest.’ It’s a weighted stick with a spring, and you use it to dispatch your fish quickly with a really good conk to the head.

“Hey!” I thought. “I need one of those!”

We made the trip to Bass Pro Shops for a few things that we can’t get out here on Cape Cod, and I ventured into the fishing section while Kevin was getting parts for the boat trailer. I browsed the aisles, but I didn’t see what I was looking for. So I went to the information counter and described it.

“We have clubs for that,” the guy told me. But I didn’t want a club. I already have an ax handle. I wanted the weighted stick with the spring action, I told him.

That’s when another guy, who had heard the conversation, came over. “I used to be a cop,” he told me. “What you’re describing is a blackjack, and it’s illegal.”

Illegal! How could something you use to put fish out of their misery be illegal? In theory, you could use it on other things besides fish, I suppose. But still.

“So, I guess you don’t carry it here,” I said.

He nodded unsympathetically and started to walk away.

I had really had my heart set on it, and I was disappointed. But then I started thinking – if I asked Jen really nicely, maybe she’d send one over from the UK.

“Excuse me,” I called out to the ex-cop, who turned around.

“I understand that it’s illegal to buy one, but is it illegal to own one?”

He nodded at me even more unsympathetically, and looked like he was this close to calling security. “They’re illegal to sell, illegal to buy, illegal to own.”

Well, okay then. I guess I’ll have to stick with my ax handle.

The ax handle lives on the boat, and our standard operating procedure when we bring a fish on board is to whack it on the head to kill it immediately. This is not my favorite part of fishing, but I figure it minimizes whatever suffering the fish is enduring. Although a fish that has its gills cut bleeds out very quickly, I’ve gotta believe that’s more unpleasant than getting knocked on the head with a blow you don’t see coming.

On the other hand, I Iike to eat bluefish. Does it really make a difference? I needed to know.

Sounds like a job for the Hard-Assed Empiricist!

There’s only one way to find out whether bleeding a bluefish affects the flavor of the meat. You have to catch two bluefish, of roughly the same size, and bleed one of them but not the other. You filet them and cook them, plain, in exactly the same way. Then you taste them, blind. That means you have to close your eyes while your husband gives you a bite of each.

None of the fishing experts, legitimate or self-styled, professional or amateur, seem to have done this. They all apparently take it on faith that you have to bleed a bluefish because all the fishing experts who came before told them that you have to.

Hard-Assed Empiricist that I am, I did the test.

We went out to Horseshoe Shoal and caught us some bluefish. We bled one, and not the others. I fileted them all, and we matched one of the bled filets to an unbled filet of the same size. (The rest of the bluefish went into a tandoori marinade.) Kevin grilled the two filets, and I tasted them blind. So did Kevin, and my stepson Eamon, and my parents.

The results?

Drumroll, please …

Nobody could tell the difference. They tasted exactly the same. You heard it here first.

I’m not prepared to state unequivocally that bleeding never matters. Our bluefish were small, about three pounds each, and it may be that bleeding is important in larger fish. We’ll test that theory when we get our hooks into some of those larger fish. It may be that it matters if the fish sits around for a couple of days before it’s cooked.

Or, it may be that it just doesn’t matter.

11 people are having a conversation about “Let it bleed?

  1. Interesting, Tamar. I’ve heard the same thing, of course, and appreciate your sharing this first step toward hard-assed scientific clarity on the subject.

  2. First you debunk the home-grown-eggs-taste-better myth, and now the fish-must-be-bled rule.
    I love the Hard-Assed empiricist approach! I have been known to take that approach to cooking sometimes. What? I’m a scientist, stuff has *got* to be tested empirical,right?

  3. Margaret Fisher says:

    Standing in for a fish, I can say unequivocally that I’d much prefer a swift bonk on the head with an axe handle than to have my gills sliced through so I bleed out. Ouch!

  4. Yeah, I’m on the conk-on-the-head side. There is not much worse than looking into a fisherman’s bucket and seeing several fish slowing suffocating in what little water he’s seen fit to keep them in until he’s done and it’s time to go home.

    And I’d like to remind your local constabulary that an axe handle is just as lethal as a black jack in the wrong hands….well, maybe they shouldn’t be reminded. We don’t need axe handles outlawed.

  5. Tovar — If you ever have the opportunity, I hope you’ll try the experiment. If we could establish this once and for all, think of the mark we’ll make in the fishing canon!

    Maria — I’m sorry to report that debunking is one of my favorite activities. I suspect that says a lot about me.

    Margaret — I’m with you, which is why I go for the conk to the head.

    Paula — Our local constabulary has plenty to do without cracking down on things like ax handles. If you cased our garage, I’m sure you could find dozens of things that could kill people — starting with a chainsaw — so I’m not quite sure what’s gained by outlawing fish priests.

  6. Tamar, this is a cut and paste from my FB page:

    Since my friend, Phillip, kindly offered to take me fishing for stripers I thought given my current state of free time I should look up how best to slaughter them. I’m committed to humane slaughter of the animals I eat. I’m satisfied I know how to slaughter birds humanely. But my usual way of bonking fish on the head always felt “uninformed” so I avoid the process by buying my fish at the market. In the spirit of knowing where my food comes from I would like to know how to kill fish humanely.

    Phillip had mentioned the Ike Jime method. Below is the complete description. The implied biochemistry – you leave more of the “alive” chemicals in the meat – seems compelling to me in terms of end product. That the process is ancient, so deliberate, specific and fast speaks to its humaneness.



  7. Kim — That is absolutely fascinating. I read every word. The idea that you change the speed and “hardness” of rigor mortis by these techniques certainly seems plausible, and those taste tests are protocols after my own heart.

    If I have a chance, I’ll try to duplicate some of the tests. It’s tough, though, when you’re fishing because it means you have to do the fileting and spine-piercing on the boat. In the meantime, I’ll read more about it.

    Thank you for taking the time to post the links. I appreciate it very much!

  8. Tamar – I’m so sorry I almost got you arrested. I’m including a link to Sportfish catalog with pictures of different priests if you want to check the legality with your local law enforcement. I use the slimline, which is about the size of a pen (no springs). Mike uses a weighted antler, or a rock if he forgets it.


    If any are legal, I’ll be glad to send you one.

    I’m interested in that ike jime dispatch method, for humane reasons as well as culinary ones. I’ll look forward to the results of stringent Hadspel testing after your next fishing trip.

    If you need someone to break you out of prison, I’ll bake you a cake with a saw in it.

  9. Tamar,

    My feeling is that this is fast once you practice. And that is the humaneness – that deliberateness. NB: you don’t fillet as part of the process. Be sure to watch the YouTube vid. It’s the piercing of the brain with the tool shown at the last link – not covered in the writeup – that I find so interesting.

    Best, Kim

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