Cooking Fish Off the Grid

A post by: John Schips, Primary Contributor for

One of the best things about catching fish is enjoying top quality, fresh meat!  Few meals are more appreciated than a fish plucked straight from the water; and when it comes to preparing the catch, one rule stands the test of time – the simpler the better.

It’s extremely easy to enjoy a great feed of fish while you’re in the backwoods. A few simple necessities are all it takes. At the very least you need a packet of matches, a sharp knife, and some salt if possible. This article will discuss cooking fish off the grid, which can be great knowledge for survival situations. Not only can you make a    delicious meal, but fish are also full of nutrients, protein, healthy fats, and everything can be prepared with minimal materials, many of which are essential items of a BOB.

On the Coals

Baking fish on the coals of a fire is as rustic as it gets, but it’s a fantastic method for cooking (you could exchange fish for any kind of meat). Oily fish like trout, salmon and mackerel suit this method well, as do white-fleshed fish that store some fat under the skin. Fat and oil help to keep the flesh juicy; and oils particularly take on the smokiness of the fire.

Optional Extras:

These aren’t necessary, and most likely won’t be used in a survival situation, but these make nice touches if you’re trying to impress someone, or you simply want to reward your practice!

  • Salt
  • Fresh lemon
  • Bread and butter
  • Plate, cutlery

Build a fire and let it burn down to embers, ensuring that there’s a good bed of coals. While the fire is burning down, gut and gill the fish. Leave the skin on. When the fire is ready, simply lay the fish on the coals and cover over with more.

It will depend on the size of the fish as to how long to wait: a fish of around 1lb should take about 5 minutes.

When time’s up, scrape off the coals and move the fish off the heat. A plate isn’t even required! Just peel the charred skin back and the flesh will flake off the frame. This is where a dash of salt (and even a squeeze of lemon juice) tie it all together. Once the top fillet is devoured, the frame can be peeled out and the second fillet is ready to go!

Alterations on the Theme:

Try some different techniques over the coals.

Oily fish like trout, salmon, mackerel, herring and bluefish (tailor if you’re in Australia; elf in Africa) are fantastic over some smoky coals. Splitting the fish down the back (or cutting fillets on large fish) allows smoke to penetrate the flesh. Scrape the fire out before embers are fully formed to create smoke without flame. Some green twigs can be used to skewer and splay the split fish. Keep skewers long and rest over the coals to avoid too much char, and turn fish during cooking.

Carry aluminium foil and bake fish wrapped in foil on the coals. This is a great method for fish that aren’t oily or fatty (like perch and pike; cod and snapper) as the foil locks moisture in and steams the fish.

If you’re in a survival situation, chances are you will be conserving your foil for your own heat insulation purposes, that is, if you have any (maybe an emergency blanket?). If this is the case, you can try using some large live leaves for wrapping material. For example, Cattails, also known as Typha, are very common in North America and Europe and are great for cooking fish over a fire. It will alter the taste of the meat slightly, but who cares, you just need to survive!

In the Pan

A fish fry is as simple or complicated as you make it. It’s not a big deal to carry the basics on extended camping trips, and enjoy fresh fried fish in the wild. A pan, along with oil or lard, is required.

Fillet and skin fish for a quick and easy meal.

Fish Mix

There are all kinds of fish and crumbing mixes that can be bought ready-to-go; but making your own is easy. You’ll need:

  • Plain flour
  • Bread crumbs
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Cajun seasoning

There’s no set recipe for the mix. Mix equal amounts of flour and breadcrumbs; and seasoning to taste. Once again, if you don’t have any of this, no worries, the meat of the fish will still be delicious, and if all you’re trying to do is survive, this will be a glorious meal without any form of seasoning.

Store fish mix in a durable plastic bag. Fish fillets can be placed in the bag and shaken to evenly coat them; and the wet mix sticks to the fillets ensuring that what remains in the bag is clean and dry.

Pan-frying fillets is simple, but shallow and deep-frying requires some more care. Make sure oil is hot before starting or the fillets will be soggy. Drop a small piece in to test – the oil is hot enough when it immediately bubbles and floats to the surface.

A set of long tongs or a long handled slotted spoon will be needed to get the fish out of the oil.

Let the fillets drain and sprinkle with salt to taste – and tuck in!

Caveman Food – Hot Smoked Fish

Hot smoked fish is a delicacy that stirs primeval thoughts. It works with trout, salmon and char, but any oily fish will make the effort worthwhile.

The ‘smoker’ itself is the hardest thing to find and/or create. The requirements are a confined space that a fire can be made at the lower end of, room to hang or rack the fish above the fire, and a ‘chimney’ to help draw smoke past the fish. Conveniently stacked rocks work well; but a large dry hollow log (a damp or rotten one may impart bad flavours) would work. It’s the bush – use your imagination!

Covering the apparatus with vegetation helps lock in smoke. Boughs of spruce and pine even add complex flavours to the fish.

The fire will need to burn with a flame to send sufficient heat up to the fish to cook it, and chipped hardwood (you’ll need an axe) piled on to smoulder provides the smoke.

Small fish can be left whole or split and splayed, while larger fish should be filleted. Periodically turning the fish will allow heat and smoke to do their job. Expect this method to take several hours, but the result is fantastic. While still hot, the fish is beautifully juicy and smoky – and because it wasn’t pickled prior to smoking – the flavour is delicate and not at all like traditional smoked fish.

This is a handy way of preserving a large fish while in the backwoods. Whatever can’t be eaten immediately should be further smoked to dehydrate the meat, and as smoke is a natural preservative, the result will keep for several days wrapped in paper and stored out of the sun in a dry place.

Simply Tasty

There are countless ways to prepare fish in the woods without having to carry a chef’s kit. Matches, a knife, tin foil, a frying pan and some oil will make many interesting meals; and the addition of a few herbs and spices, lemon and some veggies broaden the culinary horizons even further. However, at the very least, these techniques can work great in survival situations without all the extras!

The final recommendation, learned the hard way, is to always remember the salt when practicing! It will be worth it!

Caption: John Schips, Primary Contributor for

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