We all know the story. Your fishing trip has ended, you had an amazing time, caught loads of fish, but now, you don’t know how to bring it home. Is there anything more frustrating than missing out on the fish you fought so hard to catch? Perhaps you didn’t know how to freeze it, or maybe you did, but you didn’t package it properly, so the TSA agent had to confiscate it. Deli Salmon it is… Not anymore. Today, you’re going to learn all you need to know to prepare fish for your flight home.
There are a couple of ways to go about transporting your catch home. You can bring it with you on the plane, or you can have it sent by a processing company. Not every location has a company that can do this for you, so you should know how to prepare and package fish on your own. We’ll cover both options, so you can choose which one works best for you.
Transporting Fish Yourself
For obvious reasons, transporting the fish yourself will require a little more work than giving it to a processing company. But, if done right, you’ll have no trouble enjoying your catch at your very next dinner. Your preparation starts the moment you book the fishing trip. You’ll need to let your charter captain know that you’d like to have your catch filleted and prepared for shipping.
Why is it important to let the captain know about shipping? In some locations, you’ll be required to put numbered tags on each fish you catch. The captain (or deckhand) will be the one assisting you with tagging your catch once the trip is over.
Most captains will fillet your catch, but few will package it properly. Also, be aware that some captains charge an additional fee for these services, so you’d best discuss that before you get on the boat. In case the captain doesn’t provide this service, you’ll need to fillet and package the fish on your own.
Filleting and Packaging
If you already know how to fillet fish, or you have a guide who will do it for you, scroll down to the “How to Package Fish for Your Flight Home” section.
How to Fillet Fish
Before you package your catch, you’ll first need to fillet it. The first step is of course, to kill the animal. Depending on its size, you can do this by a blow to the head, piercing the brain with a sharp object, or by snapping its spinal cord. There are obviously other ways, but these three are the most humane. As soon as the fish dies, its blood and gut bacteria will start to multiply. Keeping the fish on ice will slow this process down, but you should still remove the intestines as soon as possible to ensure that the meat remains in good condition.
Next, you’ll want to bleed the fish. Bleeding is important, especially if it’s a larger animal, like a Mackerel or Tuna. The best way to do this is by making a small incision below the throat and then pull the guts out with your hand. If you’re squeamish, you could make a larger incision, and spoon out the guts, but this will make bleeding last a little longer. To prevent ammonia from tainting the flesh, remove the head, tail, and major fins. Okay, now you’re ready to fillet.
To fillet your fish, place your knife just under the gills, and slowly cut into the fish until you reach its backbone. You can also use the incision you made for gutting to reach the backbone. Once you reach the backbone, flip the fish on its side, and start cutting toward the tail. Keep your knife as close to the bones as possible to avoid meat wasting. Repeat from the other side. Note that you can also cut from the tail upwards. You’ve now filleted your fish, good work!
How to Package Fish for Your Flight Home
The first thing you should do after you fillet your fish is freeze it. You won’t be able to do this right away, so keep the fish on ice until you reach land. Once you’re back on land, freeze your fish solid using dry ice. Fish preserved in dry ice won’t thaw, and the packaging won’t leak, either. This is why airlines allow you to bring it in your baggage, sometimes even as a carry-on.
You’ll want to limit the weight of the fish you’re carrying, but at the same time, leave enough for the Transportation Security Administration officer to recognize the species. This could just be the skin, but sometimes, you’ll need to keep the head, too. Place your dry frozen fish into a well-insulated container. A cooler is also fine, but some airlines might count it as additional luggage and charge a fee. These containers usually go for no more than US$20.
Here are a few guidelines to follow when packaging your fish for transport:
- Package your fish so they are easily countable and identifiable.
- Package each fish individually, or arrange the fillets separately and flatly.
- Leave a patch of skin on the fillets for recognition.
- Leave an additional identifying feature, like the head, on species that are hard to identify.
Be sure to take your airline’s baggage regulations into consideration when packing your bags of dry frozen fish into a container. For example, some carriers allow soft-sided cooler bags, while others only accept hard-sided ones.
According to the TSA, you can bring your catch both as a carry-on, or as your checked baggage. However, certain airlines are more restrictive when it comes to carry-on baggage. Checking your dry ice might exceed your overall baggage quota, and lead to unexpected fees. Extra baggage can set you back from $40 to $100, depending on the airline. You can check the most common airline baggage rates here.
Here are a few other TSA guidelines you should keep in mind:
- Packages of dry ice must allow for the release of carbon dioxide gas.
- The limit for dry ice for both carry-on and checked baggage is 5 pounds.
- Packages of dry ice must contain the language “Carbon Dioxide Solid” or “Dry Ice” and must also have the net weight of the dry ice printed on the package.
If you’re unsure about any TSA regulations, use “Ask TSA” on Facebook Messenger or Twitter. One very important thing to note is that the final decision on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint rests with the TSA officer.
Transporting Fish Through a Processing Company
Nowadays, there are more fish processing companies than ever. Still, not all fishing destinations have such a company nearby, so you’d best check that ahead of time. Processing companies can really make your life easier, especially the ones that pick your catch right from the dock. Most of them will offer to cut your fish in steaks or fillets, and later can it, smoke it, or jerk it.
With companies like Homer Fish Processing out of Homer, Alaska and Five Star Fish Processing Services out of San Diego, you can have the entire packaging, processing, and shipping process taken care of.
As far as pricing goes, some shippers will charge you upwards of $300. It’s not the packaging that’s expensive, but the shipping costs. Fish processing fees go from $1.00 per pound to $2.50 per pound, depending on the service you choose. The container boxes aren’t expensive either – $20 for most sizes. The shipping however, can range from $100–$400 depending on the weight of your package and the destination.
Without a doubt, having your fish processed from start to end and shipped to your doorstep is very convenient. Whether the extra price is worth it or not is entirely up to you. For some people, it’s not a matter of money. These people prefer going through the entire angler’s experience, with all the filleting and packing labor included. Others will just prefer a more practical, time-saving approach.
Whatever the case may be, if you’d like to have your catch and eat it too, you’ll need to prepare ahead of time. Hopefully, by the time your next fishing trip rolls on, this will now be a little easier to do!
So there you have it. Did you ever ship the fish you caught back home or carry it on your flight? What are your recommendations for people who haven’t tried this yet? Let us know in the comments below.
Sean is an optometrist who left his day job to write about fishing. He calls himself a lucky angler because his favorite fish, Mahi Mahi, can be found almost anywhere – even though he’s lost more of them than he’s willing to admit. Obsessed by all forms of water sports, you’ll find him carrying one of three things: a ball, a surf board, or his fishing rod.