How to Kill Fish

Even monks get caught fishing sometimes -- it's a hard habit to break. By sam garza (originally posted to Flickr as Angkor Wat) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Even monks get caught fishing sometimes — it’s a hard habit to break. By sam garza (originally posted to Flickr as Angkor Wat) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Must have been sometime in the early 70’s that I read a short story by Ernest Hemingway about trout fishing. The protagonist of this tale caught a trout and skillfully killed it by breaking its back over a tree limb. In that story, the fish quivered and died instantly and that fisherman ate it for supper.

I tried that killing method myself later that year when I caught a trout at a beautiful Alpine lake and was getting ready to camp for the night. Seemed to me that someone like Hemingway should know his stuff, but after trying his method several times with the hapless trout I realized that Hemingway was kind of stretching things. I killed the trout with a knife behind the gills and through the backbone, because this is fast and it always works.

Maybe already you are wondering why I’m telling this story. I’m writing this article because I’ve been a hunter and fisherman most of my life and I’ve spent a lot of time with other people who hunt and fish, either for sport or for a living. I’ve taken long breaks from these trades because at times I’ve lived in situations where I had plenty of money and I don’t hunt or fish for sport. Now that I’m retired and living on an income that requires me to find or grow most of my own food, I have a reasonable excuse for returning to my predatory ways. Killing still disturbs me, no matter what the level of consciousness the victim might possess. What disturbs me more is the ignorance, lack of respect and lack of compassion I’ve seen in other hunters and fishermen.

Many of us have learned from the adults who taught us hunting and fishing that the lower forms of life don’t experience pain in the same exalted manner as humans, and with that in our minds we commit horrible deeds in the name of sport. I believe that a good hunter waits for a clean shot and is willing to let the game go untouched without one. If you’re not a good shot and you don’t have the patience to wait for a clean kill, you shouldn’t in my opinion be out there shooting at other living creatures. I heard a fellow brag once about how he broke a deer’s leg with a rifle bullet and tracked the blood trail for two miles before he found the deer dead in a ditch, like this was some sort of remarkable achievement. I heard another avid deer hunter tell of shooting a deer along the backbone, only to find all the meat “bloodshot” and worthless. For all sorts of reasons I abhor people like this, I will not hunt with them and I don’t even want to be around them. They have no respect for the game. They could at least eat what they kill. I’m certain I’ve eaten worse meat than a mangled deer and enjoyed the meal. Cripes, I’ve eaten turkey loaf I bought at Walmart in the frozen food section, there’s road kill better than that.

Unless you hunt and fish, stop here. Even if you do hunt and fish I’m about to ruin your day.

By far the worst crimes against nature I’ve witnessed have been committed against fish and amphibians and even small animals. As a kid I watched the men who taught me to hunt butcher and dress the game, and sometimes if the animal was still barely moving they just went ahead with it. If I objected, they told me it would be dead in a minute, and of course it was. That’s not the point. I grew up going frogging with the neighbor boys, Don and Eugene. In the daytime we caught frogs with tiny bits of white cloth on fishhooks dangling on line tied to willow poles, the frogs thought they were bugs and sucked the hooks in with their tongues. At night we spotlighted the big bullfrogs squatting on the banks of the farm ponds and impaled them with barbed gigging forks. I don’t recall that I ever cut the legs off a frog without killing it, but Don and Eugene always did, and the yard of their farmhouse was literally crawling with legless frogs that dragged themselves about on their front feet for several days before they expired.

The aftermath of fishing was even more brutal. My father never bothered to kill fish before filleting them, didn’t even gut them before he scaled them and sliced off the meat. He told me that fish don’t feel pain. Even as a boy I concluded that this was inaccurate. A fish might not express pain as eloquently as a person does, but I was certain that a fish feels pain, otherwise it would not avoid been caught. My father was not the only one who treated fish like flexible strips of senseless rubber. All the men we fished with did this. My uncle Bob skinned and dressed catfish by nailing their heads to a board to hold them down. Then he threw the heads back into the lake, where they bobbed about for many hours gulping down air bubbles.

All these things seemed wrong to me and I found other ways to deal with this moral issue, some of which turned out to be similarly brutal and ineffective. Frogs and catfish are tough and if you don’t know a critter’s anatomy pretty well it can be difficult to dispatch them quickly. Over the years I’ve learned a bit, though.

For any small fish except catfish, severing the head behind the gills works. That takes a second and even though the head lives for a little while it is at least separated from the mayhem. People used to think the guillotine was merciful. I doubt it, but it’s pretty fast.

Bass have a shape that lends to quick death with a narrow blunt instrument. If you strike the top of the head with the back of a bowie knife and you hit the right spot, death is instantaneous. But you have to know the right spot so look up some material on bass anatomy before you try this. Indians in South America do something similar with small fish, bite them on the back of the head to crush the skull. Kills them instantly.

Some people do use billy clubs or hammers to kill catfish and carp. This is at least better than processing them alive. Bear Grylls uses the same method I do, splitting the skull lengthwise with the point of a knife driven straight down through the top of the head. (Update 7/15/2016: after a very successful spring of catfishing I’ve revised my method of dispatching the catfish. I will admit that for this fish I do find the ball peen hammer (flat side) most effective. Also you have to know where to hit. Catfish aren’t people, if you hit them between the eyes it’s like punching someone in the nose. Go back a bit and strike straight down between the pectoral fins. A big catfish will be hard to kill with just a knife. For smaller catfish, use the knife. For a bigger one, if you hit the right spot you hear the crunch as the skull gives way, the fish quivers and stills, and it’s done. Put something hard underneath the fish at that spot and it’s more likely to be instantaneous death like in the faery tales where something doesn’t know what hit them, it’s like building a figure-4 trap except you are there).

By far the least bloodthirsty way to kill fish is by temperature shock. Ice fishermen have it easy, just toss the fish on the ice. What I’ve read of the experiences of the higher animals like humans who die this way makes me think that at least in the last stages it’s not a bad way to go. Fish go through it quickly. If you carry an ice chest big enough to hold a few bags of ice and the day’s catch, put in ice first, then fish, then ice bags on top. I would recommend backing up this method with a knife strike before you clean the fish.

Even a lesser temperature shock will kill panfish. Immersion in a bucket of cold, oxygen-poor well water will kill a stringer of panfish in minutes, on a hot summer day.

Although I don’t go frogging any more, I do know more about the vulnerabilities of frogs than I did when I was a kid. The critical organs are small, the animal is able to live with little oxygen, and the brain is so tiny it’s hard to hit. Anyone who had to pith a frog in biology class knows it’s a tricky deal. There’s an old standby, though, that I learned from a herpetologist back in the 60’s. To kill specimen snakes he dropped a pinch of snuff in their mouths. Nicotine is deadly to many of the simpler creatures like snakes and frogs and kills them in seconds. I won’t do this myself but it must be a better death than crawling around inside a trash bag for a few days. Possibly the tobacco could flavor the meat so this might not be practical unless you smoke, and you could develop a frog leg addiction. It’s delicious meat anyway, like fish without the fishy bits. Rotenone, available as an organic pesticide, is used by Indians in South America to poison waterways temporarily and bring fish to the surface due to suffocation. Don’t do that here. Read the directions on the label — use of rotenone is banned near waterways and drainage areas. Get your hands bloody instead.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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