Hooked On Health: Food Safety Tips for Ice Fishing Season

 — By Kayla Parsons, RDN, PhD Student, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Ask any avid fisherman about their favorite winter activity and you’re guaranteed to hear, “There’s nothing like spending a day out on the ice.” Ice fishing can be an active and rewarding way to embrace Maine’s chilly weather, not to mention the proud moment of catching supper! The type of fish and amount you can legally catch varies by region, which is detailed in 2024 Maine’s Inland Fishing Laws.  Keep reading to learn about how you can practice food safety during this ice-fishing season. If you’re new to the sport, we also encourage you to read the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Beginner’s Guide to Ice Fishing in Maine to learn more about necessary gear and basic information to get you started. 

The big moment is finally here, you caught a fish! Make sure that your fish is healthy by looking for bright, clear eyes and red gills. Signs of disease in fish include sunken eyes, loose or missing scales, and discolored, slimy gills. Avoid eating fish that have a swollen abdomen, as this may be an indication of parasites, an internal bacterial infection, or cancer. If your catch looks healthy, the next step is cleaning. Cleaning, or gutting, the fish is an important step to maximize the quality of taste and preservation time. After death, enzymatic reactions can occur in digestive organs, tainting the flavor of the meat over time. Wash your hands before and after processing the fish. When processing the fish, use a clean filet knife and clean your knife frequently in between cuts to avoid bacteria spreading.  Check out PennState Extension’s article, Proper Care and Handling of Fish from Stream to Table, for extensive details on how to safely clean a fish. 

Once your fish is properly cleaned, store it in a cool, clean container immediately. It may be beneficial to bring a designated cooler with ice for fish that are caught. Seafood and fish should be kept at 40° Fahrenheit or below to minimize the likelihood of pathogen growth. You can refrigerate raw seafood and fish up to 2 days before cooking or freezing. When cooking, ensure that the fish has an internal temperature of at least 145° Fahrenheit before eating. Reference Cooperative Extension’s General Food Safety Tips for Preparing Food for tips on how to use a meat thermometer. 

Not ready to eat your catch? Freezing can help to preserve your fish for a longer shelf-life since freezing prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause food spoilage and foodborne illness. To do so, properly wash your hands and find a clean working area. Store your cleaned fish filets in freezer-grade bags and label them with the date of freezing. Store the bags in a freezer that is 0° Fahrenheit or below. If properly stored, frozen fish can be used within two years.

It should also be noted that some freshwater fish in Maine contain high levels of mercury. Certain populations are more at risk for mercury poisoning because of its negative effect on brain development. Pickerel, bass, and large fish that consume other fish contain the highest levels of mercury. Pregnant and nursing people, people who may become pregnant, and children under the age of 8 should avoid consuming any freshwater fish, with the exception of brook trout and landlocked salmon, which can be consumed up to one meal per month. All other adults and children older than 8 years old should only eat up to 2 freshwater fish meals per month. Brook trout and landlocked salmon can be consumed up to 1 meal per week. To read more about Maine’s Freshwater Fish Safe Eating Guidelines, click here. 

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