SITTING in one of my favorite watering holes on an evening last week, I listened patiently as an angler explained to his buddy why he doesn’t keep crappies, northerns and most fish caught in summer.

The man said the flesh is soft and that it tastes a little too fishy compared to the firmer, tastier fillets he catches from colder water in spring, fall and winter.

And his friend pretty much bought it, nodding his head in agreement because he had no knowledge with which to counter the soft-fillet theory, though I’m not sure the claim deserves to be labeled a theory.

The scribbler remained silent, but in the back of my mind I tattooed a note that said this topic needs to be addressed before others hear the same misinformation.

First off, handled properly, summer fish fillets are some of the highest quality you’ll find all year. After months of dining on young-of-the-year minnows and all those bug hatches, summer fish sport the thickest fillets of the year. With no stretched-out bellies from egg production, males and females alike produce solid fillets.

Getting a summer fish to fillet and taste identical to a winter fillet is as easy as making use of that cold well-water in most homes here. Put any live fish in a bucket or cooler of that water for 10 to 15 minutes and you will have a rock-solid, cold-bodied fish.

I carry a cooler of ice and water in my truck to make sure that summer fish stay cold and alive until they hit the cleaning table. That way, I can properly drain a livewell at the landing and not prematurely kill the fish.

For the absolutely best fish fillets, the key here is that the fish bleed out entirely on the cleaning table. 

Fish that freeze or die before they get to the cleaning table absorb the blood into the meat and those fillets, while still edible, are softer with a slimy feel to them. 

You may have seen on the Outdoor Channel the number of anglers who bleed out huge tuna from the oceans or even brook trout from a stream. It’s important to make sure as little blood as possible gets absorbed into the meat.

I will only fillet two or three crappies at a time before I skin them and drop the fillets into ice-cold water. When it’s 80 degrees outside and even warmer on the cleaning table, it’s important to follow through on the chilling process after cutting fish that were swimming in a cooler of well water.

It’s also important to rinse every bit of the blood, slime and scales that may be left on those fillets by washing them aggressively in well water. Then, I let them soak for several hours in the refrigerator where more of the blood leeches out. You should end up with rock-hard fillets that are translucent and not slimy to the touch.

The only exception to the fish-soaking rule are northern pike fillets, for they clean up in an entirely different way. Once washed aggressively in well water, pike fillets can be bagged and refrigerated. They don’t need any soaking and, in fact, will start to fall apart if soaked in water too long.

Letting fish freeze on the ice in winter is just as bad as letting them die in summer. You will end up with more blood being absorbed into the fillets and they will not be of the highest quality. I carry a 5-gallon bucket in winter that is used to make sure fish stay alive or at least not frozen, until they hit the cleaning table.

The other problem with frozen fish in winter is the incredible blue slime that appears, seemingly out of nowhere, when you decide to thaw the fish before filleting.

It’s so thick and disgusting that it reminds me of the days when the neighbor’s St. Bernard used to rest its chin on my lap and left a long, thick line of drool on my leg and shorts. So letting fish freeze presents more than one issue.

The portable, battery-run aerators that are available today do a fantastic job of helping keep fish alive in any season. I’ve used them in livewells, coolers and buckets to keep fish alive when they might otherwise have died.

This might sound crazy to some, but I keep a fillet knife and plastic bags in my boat just in case a quality fish, such as a big walleye, dies on a summer day because it was hooked too deeply. Again, filleting that fish in the boat before it dies and putting the fillets on ice ensures a better dining experience in the days to come.

I’m not trying to chastise people who believe in the soft-fillet theory and won’t keep fish in summer. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why I decided to write on the topic this week, hoping it might dispel some misinformation.

I know people who fish in Florida where water temperatures are a lot warmer than the North Woods, and they keep and eat fish the year around. But you can’t let them die in warm water if you want quality fish to eat.

For those who choose to continue to release all the fish they catch in summer, well, God bless you. That will just save a bunch of fish for the other seasons and other anglers.

I just happen to like the thickest fillets of the year, when the perch and the crappies are full-bodied. I like them right after they have done some swimming in hot oil, with a light breading, golden brown and crispy on the outside, and white and flaky on the inside.

I’m getting hungry now. Good luck with your fishing and your fish-cleaning this summer.