How Long Before Ungutted Fish On Ice Goes Bad? (Here’s What You Need To Know)
UPDATED 17 MAY 2023
by Robert Ceran
An important question every angler wonders about is how to keep their catch fresh while fishing.
If you have an ice box with ice, a popular solution is to put freshly caught fish on ice, and leave them there until you go home.
But is it a good idea to put ungutted fish on ice, and how long can you keep them there before they go bad?
Here’s the quick answer:
If fish are bled correctly after catching, they can be stored on ice without gutting for 24-48 hours without negative effects.
After that the quality starts to deteriorate, and you’re better off freezing them instead.
How long can you keep ungutted fish on ice?
If you’re planning to keep freshly caught fish on ice, make sure to bleed the fish first before putting them on ice, which is essential to avoid discoloration of the meat.
You don’t want the blood to coagulate inside the fish, and the only way to avoid that is by bleeding them right after catching.
Once fish are bled correctly, you can keep them ungutted on ice for 24-48 hours without negative effects on taste.
And after you take them home at the end of the day, you can continue to keep the ungutted fish in the refrigerator for another 24-36 hours.
After that you really need to clean them if you want to avoid deterioration of quality.
What’s the best way to keep fish fresh after catching?
Ideally, you’ll want to bleed and gut fresh fish immediately after catching them, and then keep them on ice until you cook them on the same day, or the next day.
Raw fish should only be kept in the fridge for a maximum of 2 or 3 days before eating it. On the other hand, if you freeze fresh fish, this preserves their quality for up to 3-8 months.
However, most anglers don’t have time to gut freshly caught fish, since they want to continue catching more fish.
In that case there are several ways to keep fish fresh while fishing. The best of these is to keep the fish alive, but this is only feasible with small fish that can be kept in a keeper net, or in a bucket of water.
If you can’t keep freshly caught fish alive, the next best option is to store them on ice, or in an ice slurry, which keeps them at a temperature of around 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit (similar to the temperature of a fridge).
This can be done quite easily by taking a cooler box with ice along on your fishing trip, though you need to keep in mind that the ice will melt by the end of the day.
If you’re ice fishing, you’re in luck, since the easiest way to keep the fish fresh is simply by leaving them on top of the ice you’re fishing on.
And if you’re planning to mount your fish, check out our guide on how to preserve fish for taxidermy.
How to bleed fish correctly
As mentioned above, it’s essential to bleed fish before putting them on ice, to ensure they stay fresh as long as possible.
The best way to do this is by cutting deeply behind the gills in a downward motion from top to bottom, as this severs all the main blood vessels that serve the gills.
You should immediately see blood come out, and then just wait 1-2 minutes until it’s done, and then quickly rinse the fish.
Can you freeze ungutted fish?
If you take ungutted fish home, you may be wondering if you can freeze the whole fish and clean them later.
The answer is yes – you can freeze fish without gutting first, and you can keep them like that for several months in the freezer without problems.
However, keep in mind that freezing whole fish is not the best solution, and it’s always better to clean fish before freezing them.
The slow freezing process in a home freezer can lead to rupturing of the stomach, which tends to have a negative effect on the taste of the meat.
Also, when you thaw the fish later on, the internal organs will start to decompose very quickly, which can also have a negative effect on taste. In order to avoid this, try to remove the gut when the fish is still partially frozen.
You should also keep in mind that you can’t refreeze fish that has been thawed, since the thawing process accelerates decomposition.
So if you catch a big fish, it’s better to clean it right away and then freeze it in small portions that you can take out of the freezer individually.
How long before ungutted fish goes bad?
If you bleed ungutted fish and then store them on ice or in the refrigerator, they can be kept for 24-48 hours without quality problems. However, it’s essential to keep fish cool for this.
If you don’t keep them cool, you only have 6-12 hours before ungutted fish goes bad. The reason for this is that bacteria and digestive enzymes inside the gut start to affect the rest of the fish.
How long does fresh caught fish last in the fridge?
Gutted fish can last up to 2 to 3 days in the fridge, while ungutted fish lasts for 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator.
Keep in mind that fish protein is highly perishable, and that a fridge only partially slows down decomposition by bacteria. This happens faster in ungutted fish because their intestines contain bacteria that accelerate decomposition.
Finally, even though you can safely eat fish that has been in the fridge for 2 or 3 days, its flavor and texture start to degrade well before it reaches this deadline, which means it will taste worse the longer you wait.
Because of this, I personally only store fresh fish for a maximum of 24 to 36 hours in the refrigerator before eating it.
How long can you freeze fish before it goes bad?
You can freeze fish for 3 to 8 months before it goes bad, and as a general rule of thumb it will be fine if kept in the freezer for 6 months or less.
And when I say “going bad” I mean deterioration of taste and texture, though it’s safe to eat frozen fish even after 1 to 2 years in the freezer.
Also note that fish with a high fat content (such as trout, mackerel and salmon) degrade faster than lean fish, and you should only keep them in the freezer for a maximum of 3 months to ensure optimal taste.
How to keep fish fresh without ice
If you’re fishing in the warm season and don’t have ice with you, you’ll need to bleed and clean the fish right after catching.
After that keep them dry and in a shady place, and they will be fine until you go home later that day.
If you want to preserve fish longer than half a day in the summer without ice, then the only option is to salt them.
For this you need to rub a lot of salt inside the body cavity after cleaning, as well as all over the outside.
Remember that once you’re ready to eat the fish, you need to soak them in water to remove as much of the salt as possible.
So in conclusion, it’s always best to bleed and fish right after catching them, and then to gut them as fast as possible.
And following that, you should try to eat or freeze the fish as fast as possible to maintain the quality.
So if you happen to be a “catch and release” angler, you’re probably glad right now because you don’t have to worry about this issue.