Fish Cleaning and Care TipsFishing in the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park can be a rewarding experience. The crystal clear waters are teeming with walleye, lake trout, smallmouth bass and northern pike. Most anglers are successful and catch way more fish than they can possibly eat. Because there is no way to keep fish cold or fresh until you get back to civilization it will be necessary to practice catch and release fishing.
Some people attempt to keep their fish alive on a stringer overnight or in a homemade live well. This is not a good idea because it can attract unwanted visitors and the fish usually ends up being eaten before morning by a snapping turtle, eagle or otter. If you intend to keep the fish then it's best to filet and eat the fish as soon as possible. The fish from the deep cold lakes are delicious and people enjoy eating all four species. Northern pike is excellent eating especially if you learn how to remove the Y bones. After cleaning your fish be sure to dispose of the remains properly.
In the Boundary Waters anglers must bury their fish remains far from a BWCA campsite.
In the Quetico Park anglers are asked to return the remains of their fish to deep water in the lake they caught the fish on.
Catch and Release Fishing in the Boundary Waters
We encourage catch and release fishing in the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park. This helps to ensure quality fishing for canoe country campers who visit in the future. While it is nice to get a photo of your fish it is better for the fish if it is done while the fish is in the water. If you must have a photo of yourself with a fish you plan to release then be sure to follow the guidelines below and remember to support the weight of the fish body with a hand under its belly and keep the fish horizontal. Do not hold a fish by the lower jaw because it can damage jaw muscles that will affect the ability of the fish to feed after release. It’s fun to catch a fish and even more rewarding to watch it swim away after you have released it.
- Be Prepared. Too many times I have casted a lure into the water not expecting to catch a fish and one ends up stuck on my lure. I then find myself struggling to reach a needle nose or other tool in order to release the fish. Always plan to catch a fish and have a needle nose, gloves or whatever else you need nearby so you can quickly and efficiently release a fish.
- Be Efficient. You can increase the rate of survival if you avoid over playing the fish. Retrieve the fish deliberately, not too quickly, slowly or sporadically. This will help reduce the stress and fatigue a fish experiences.
- Go Barbless. The use of barbless hooks or cutting the barbs off of lures can aide in a quick release that does less damage to a fish.
- Wear Rubberized Gloves. I know it might look silly and your friends may make fun of you but if you are planning to release a fish then wear rubber gloves. It helps protect the coat of slime the fish needs on its body and gloves allow you to get a firm grip without squeezing the fish too hard. Touching fish with your bare hands can cause fungus growth or infections leading to the death of the fish.
- Fish Belong in Water. If at all possible it is best to release a fish while the fish is still in the water. Air is an enemy of fish and sunlight can damage their eyes. To release a fish in the water just reach over the side of the watercraft and use a needle-nosed pliers to gently remove the hook from the fish and watch it swim away.
- Cut the Line. When a fish has swallowed the hook do not try to remove the hook from inside of the fish. Just cut the line as close to the hook as possible and over time the hook will dissolve or dislodge.
- Handle With Care. If you must touch the fish then either wear gloves or wet your hands first to protect the slime coating. Keep your fingers out of the gills and eyes and hold the fish firmly without squeezing and prevent the fish from battering itself on hard or hot surfaces. Support the body of the fish with a hand under the stomach even while it is in the water so the pressure on the hook is eliminated.
- Use Nets Sparingly. If you must bring the fish into the boat with a net then be sure it is a rubberized net. This type of net will cause less damage to the fish.
- Release with Care. Gently return the fish to the water in a headfirst position pointing it straight down to allow the fish to plunge into the water.
- Fish CPR. A fish may need to be revived if it is exhausted or if it has spent too much time out of the water. Hold the fish in the water in their normal swimming position while supporting the belly and holding both the mouth and gills open. Move them forward or hold them facing into a current to allow water to pass through their gills. They should swim away under their own power.
How to Filet a Fish
1 The first cut should be behind the gill and front fins. Angle the knife towards the fish's head so you don't waste part of the fillet. Cut down to the backbone without cutting through.
2 Feel for the hard backbone and cut along the backbone toward the tail. Be sure to cut through all the rib bones, but don't cut through the backbone.
3 Turn the fish over and follow steps 1 and 2. (Fillet the other side using the same method.)
4 Place the fillets skin side down. Starting at the tail, cut the meat off the skin.
5 Next you will need to cut the rib cage off of each fillet. Take your fillet knife and go under the rib bones from the top to the bottom, cutting rib bones free. You will want to keep the knife RIGHT UNDER the bones, so you can conserve most of the fillet.