Handy fish bags make preserving your catch a cinch.
Just zip it up! Using a fish bag is that simple. Of course, you’ll have to add fish and ice. But, that’s all the technical know-how required to keep your catch fresh and cold. Tasty, too, no matter how big or small your boat.
Fish bags are handy tools. Once primarily utilized by tournament fishermen, these soft-side, portable coolers are becoming commonplace as more anglers add the bags to their must-have tackle list.
The history of fish bags is kinda vague, but general consensus has it that they first popped on the tournament king mackerel scene. Back then just like now, insulated fish bags filled the bill when storage space is at a premium and fish boxes aren’t large enough to accommodate your catch and you’re determined to keep your fish in top condition—fit for any dinner table or tournament weigh-in.
Construction-wise, bags seem fairly similar, although individual manufacturers are sure to disagree. Most have waterproof PVC or vinyl sides and interior compartments for repelling stains surrounded by some type of insulating material such as closed-cell foam to keep the chill in and the heat out. Generally, a heavy-duty zipper runs down three sides of the bag, which allows you to open it fully for cleaning. Some bags come equipped with drain plugs so you can vent excess water without unzipping and others “leak” melted ice water through the seams when tilted a hair. Webbed nylon hand and shoulder straps for easy carrying round out the package.
Bag lengths and widths vary, and this bodes well for anglers. Size selection allows you to pick a bag or bags tailored to the fish you catch. For instance, if you plan on packing one with spotted seatrout or rigged ballyhoo baits, a shorter, beamier bag is in order. On the other hand, if your prey is smoker king macks, bull dolphin or wahoo a longer, skinnier bag makes more sense. And, if you truly pursue big gamefish such as tuna, there are bags on the market made to accommodate your catch, up to 400 pounds if need be, that measure an expansive 40 by 84 inches when zipped. Billfish bags come even bigger and some are advertised to hold billfish weighing up to 1,200 pounds. Something to consider before heading out on the next swordfish expedition.
What advantages do bags offer over traditional coolers? First off, they’re convenient. You can stow bags below decks until needed or use one of the swifter tricks I’ve seen—hang ’em under the gunnel. All you need is a couple of J-hooks (rod racks will do if they match the bag’s handles) positioned to hang the bag vertically—zipper up—above deck. This keeps it handy and out of the way. If your gunnels aren’t high enough to hang the bag, don’t fret. A flats boat skipper said that storing a folded bag in a locker negates the need for carrying a second cooler to keep drinks and food separated from fish destined for the table. He just takes a bag of ice from the drink cooler, adds fish and leaves the bag stretched out on deck until he reaches the ramp. Then he totes the bag to the cleaning table. How’s that for utility?
Price advantage also goes to bags. Bags are generally cheaper than comparable capacity hard-side coolers. They’re also portable, important when transporting that 70-pound wahoo, 30-pound dolphin or 40-pound king to the weigh station or cleaning table. And, while you’re busy filleting, bags keep your fish cool, in peak condition. Retail prices do vary, so it pays to shop around for a bag that meets your needs. On average, bait and small fish bags start around $100 and models large enough to hold yellowfin and bigeye tuna run between $225 and $450. That 1,200-pound marlin or swordfish bag—two 5- by 9-foot bags that attach—will also set you back about $450.
Some folks seem amazed that anglers fishing aboard bigger boats employ bags when built-in fishboxes could easily accommodate the catch. One reason is that the bag protects fish by preventing them from receiving bruises and bangs caused by constant jostling in the hard-side box on the run home. Hence, soft bags keep your fish in better condition. Bags are also much easier to clean than your standard in-deck insulated box. Once you’ve removed the fish, just zip it completely open and give it a good scrubdown. Blood and scales rarely stick to slick fish bag material. After you finish, hang it up to dry. No clogged macerators to keep you occupied.
There are several ways to chill fish in a bag. The easiest and simplest is to use a couple bags of ice and replenish as necessary. You can also choose a bag that has sewn-in compartments that accommodate synthetic Techni Ice packets. This reusable dry ice substitute developed in Australia has many commercial food shipping applications and manufacturers advertise that bags equipped for the product can keep fish and bait cold for up to a week (for more info look up the product on the Web).
Bags do have one drawback—hooks. Never throw a thrashing hooked fish into a bag. That’s a recipe for disaster. Whenever a mad fish tosses a hook, it’s bound to snag the bag’s PVC or vinyl lining and ruin it. Don’t worry about king mackerel or wahoo dentures. To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a report of fish chewing through a fish bag.
Some bag uses are not as plainly visible or advertised. They could be extremely valuable in emergency situations. That same R-factor that keeps cool in and heat out could be reversed to keep you warm if you use it as a blanket. Bags could also be used to flag passing vessels or for makeshift beds.
One more thing bound to please the fashion conscious: You can custom order most fish bags with your boat logo inscribed on the side. Besides looking good, no one will make the mistake of claiming your fish.