(Editor’s note: Welcome to the first installment of our “Ask a Survival Guy” series of blog posts. We encourage you to submit a question. The founder of Midwest Native Skills, Tom Laskowski, might just answer it as part of this regular feature!)
Let’s say you’re in a survival situation and you’re doing incredibly well fishing. In fact, you’re catching more fish than you can eat in one day. Since you’re having success and you don’t know how long you’ll be in the woods or wilderness, how many fish should you try to catch and what’s the best way to preserve them so that you can eat them in the future?
My standard answer for a food or resource gathering question is “Take 1/3 for yourself, leave 1/3 for the birds and animals, and leave a 1/3 to reseed or repropagate.” For this question, though, I’m assuming that you’re not fishing with a net, so there is no chance of overtaking what the area has available. In that case, if you’re having good luck fishing and you don’t know how long your “wilderness adventure” will last, I would keep fishing until the fish stop biting.
The next part of your question deals with preserving the fish for future meals. The best way to preserve food for a future meal is to simply keep it alive. You have two choices with this option.
First, you could try to find a ready-made area where you can house the fish. It would need to be small enough so that you could easily “hand-catch” the fish when you wanted a meal. However, it would also need to be deep enough so that the water would not get too warm and kill the fish. You would also need a way to have fresh (aerated) water enter the holding pen.
Second, you could try to dig an area to house the fish. Ideally, this would be done before you started fishing. You don’t want to dig after you catch the fish, because the fish will likely die before you finish. You’ll also be taking away from your “prime fishing time.”
If keeping the fish alive is not an option, then drying them is your next best option. You will need to build a drying rack for this, and once again, build your rack before you start fishing.
After you’ve caught your fish, gut and wash them so that they’re clean inside and out. You have two options here, a vertical drying rack or a flat drying rack. The vertical rack entails simply suspending the fish from a horizontal piece of wood typically suspended in the air. A Tripod drying rack utilizes a “tripod” and a “wooden grill” on which the fish are placed flat on the drying rack, ensuring that they don’t touch each other.
Regardless which rack you use the next step is to move the rack so that the fish are directly in the smoke of your fire, but away from the heat of the fire. Important note: You are NOT smoking the fish for preservation. The smoke is only to keep the flies away from the fish until a crust forms on them.
After approximately 30 minutes, a crust will form on the fish and the flies will not be interested in landing on them to lay eggs. You can now move the rack into direct sunlight to dry the fish. This process can typically be done in one day, depending upon the relative humidity and the intensity of the sun that day. Low humidity and a cloudless day would constitute ideal conditions.
When the fish are VERY brittle and bone-dry, they are done. If all of the moisture has been removed, the fish can be stored indefinitely as long as they are kept dry. This is the same process that you would use for making beef jerky, only in the case of jerky, lean meat would be used and it would be sliced into very thin strips before being placed on the drying rack.