How To Humanely Kill A Fish Before Cleaning It: Ethical Tips

by Thavius | Last Updated:   June 1st, 2022
How To Humanely Kill A Fish Before Cleaning It: Ethical Tips
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While it may not seem like it matters too much, learning how to kill fish should be a big part of your overall angling experience. In fact, responsible anglers learn how to humanely kill their prey before going ahead to clean or preserve it. Many may wonder why anyone has to care about the method they apply to kill a fish. Well, it’s because fish feel pain too.

According to the latest research in the field of fish intelligence and sentience using updated data and innovative technology, there are clear indicators that fish are social creatures that feel pain too. As a result, it’s possible for them to learn from other fish and experience their distress. Therefore, you have to learn how to humanely kill a fish before cleaning it. This piece will teach you the humane method of killing fish.

What Are The Best Methods To Humanely Kill A Fish?

We’ve earlier established that anglers should do their best to kill their prey quickly and painlessly. However, this doesn’t leave much room for anglers to decide on the best way to kill their prey. While many opt to quickly toss the prey offshore to suffocate it, you need to note that this method is also excruciating for the small prey.

Killing a fish humanely refers to methods that allow a person to end the prey’s life without butchering it or ending up with a bloody mess. This way, you can dispose of your catch in the least painful way possible. Humane killing requires swift action that will end the life of your prey painlessly.

Watch this video to find out if fish feel pain:


The following methods will allow you to humanely kill smaller fish:

  1. A quick blow to the head
  2. Break the fish’s neck
  3. Break the fish’s spinal cord

A Quick Blow To The Head

This humane method is one of the oldest and most effective ways to kill a fish. This method may also be referred to as percussion stunning. This method is effective for disposing of different types of prey, including larger fish.

Percussive stunning involves striking the fish’s skull quickly with a hard object. Make sure to land the blow between the eyes—directly on the fish’s brain. When done properly, a hard blow to the head will either make the fish unconscious or kill it. Take care not to apply too much force that will end up crushing the skull of the animal.

To kill a small fish through this method, you can hold the prey in another hand and strike with the other. For larger fish, you can lay your prey on the boat deck or any solid surface.

When you consider the fact that a hard blow to the brain immediately kills the prey, it’s clear that this is one of the easiest methods to try out. The fish will not suffer for several minutes, and it’s relatively painless. Also, you won’t have to deal with cleaning up blood from your gear or fishing boat.

If you’re in the field and didn’t prepare to kill your prey through this method, a rock is a good enough tool to use. All you have to do is find a rock that is large enough and easy to grip. You may also opt to use a fishing priest for this operation. The fishing priest is a small wooden bat. However, it’s easier to hold and use than a piece of rock. Another effective tool you can use for humane killing is a Tackle Fish Wacker.

Break The Fish’s Neck

This method is a good option for anglers who are stuck in the river and need an effective and easy way to dispose of their prey. This human method allows you to immediately kill your fish with your bare hands. When trying to break a fish’s neck, it’s essential that the intended fish has a large mouth to support a firm grip. This technique would prove ineffective when tried on a small-mouthed fish, like a lunker bass or bluegill.

While it may sound like a gruesome process, breaking a fish’s neck is fairly easy. First, stick your index finger into one gill and your middle finger into another gill. Next, use your thumb and palm for leverage as you pull the fish’s head up and down till you sever its neck. Depending on the size of the fish, you may hear or feel a soft snap as the neck is broken into two.

You need to note that this method may seem cruel and uncomfortable because you are physically connected to the fish. However, it’s a quick way to end the fish’s life without cutting its neck or slaughtering it. There’s little room for error as your back and forth pulling will damage the neck of the animal. What’s more, the only tools you need for the successful completion of this operation are your hands.

Break The Fish’s Spinal Cord

The final method to humanely kill a fish is to break its spinal cord. While other methods require that you make use of whatever you have, breaking a fish’s spinal cord can only be done with a sharp knife, like a fillet knife. Unless you have some form of superhuman strength, it’s physically impossible to sever a fish’s spinal cord with your bare hands.

This method is your best bet when working with small or medium-sized fish. For instance, this method is suitable for thin species like panfish. When handling small fish, it may be difficult to humanely kill them through other methods.

This method can be carried out in a fairly simple process. All you have to do is lay the fish down on a hard surface. Next, use your knife to cut through the spinal cord of your prey. The spinal cord is located behind the fish’s eyes. Apply pressure with your knife and cut gently till you reach the hard surface beneath.

This method may be a little bit messy, but it’s quick, effective, and convenient. Anglers can also apply it to different species of fish and get the same result.

When trying to hit the fish’s brain, there is a chance that you will miss the sweet spot and have to try again. However, a knife is a precise weapon, and you’ll hardly miss your target.

Next time you’re considering taking some fish home to the frying pan, it’s important that you act like a responsible angler and kill your prey as humanely as possible. You can try any of the methods explained above to get the desired results while ensuring your fish suffers the least possible pain.

How To Test If Your Fish Is Dead?

How to humanely kill a fish before cleaning it

After you are done killing or dispatching your catch, it’s essential to ensure that the animal is dead before going on to the next phase: dissecting and cleaning it. There are a few proven ways for you to determine if your fish has been dispatched.

The first thing to do is to test the eye roll reflex. Rotate the fish in your hand and watch the action of the eyes. If the fish is dead, its eyes will not move as you rotate it. Also, if the fish is dead, there will be no noticeable rhythmic movement of the operculum. Finally, if your percussive stunning is effective, the wish will be unable to swim when placed in water.

How To Bleed Your Fish?

After stunning or dispatching your fish, the next thing to do is to bleed it. Bleeding your fish is the best way to preserve the quality of the flesh.

To effectively bleed your fish, identify the flap of skin located between the gills and the base of the throat. Hold the fish in one hand, turn it away from you, and stick your hand into the skin flap. Pull it firmly to sever it. This action will rip out the blood vessels in the fish’s throat. Let the blood drain for some time before cleaning it or putting it on ice.

Watch this video to learn how to bleed a fish:

What Are Unacceptable Methods For Killing Your Catch?

There are some methods of killing fish that are considered unacceptable by the Humane Slaughter Association. These methods are tagged as unacceptable because they cause discomfort and distress to the animal prior to its death.

Some of the methods that fall under this criteria include:

  • Smothering the fish in ice, which leads to suffocation.
  • Cutting the gills without percussive stunning
  • Forceful removal of water, also known as violent suffocation

Frequently Asked Questions

Should you kill your fish after catching it?

There are several reasons for going on a fishing expedition, depending on the angler in question. There are those who catch fish for recreation and end up letting the animal back in the wild, while there are others who hunt for sport. If you’re interested in catching some prey for dinner, it’s a good idea to kill your prey as soon as possible.

Why should you kill a fish humanely?

It’s been established scientifically that fishes feel pain when slaughtered and can transfer the distress to other animals around them. As a result, most anglers do their best to dispose of their prey humanely to comply with the Humane Slaughter Association.

How to kill a fish humanely?

There are several ways to kill a fish humanely. You may either hit the fish’s skull, break its neck or sever the spinal cord of the animal. All you have to do is choose whichever option works best for you.

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I've been a fisherman for over 35 years. From catching small bullheads with my grandfather at his pond to catching strippers on the backwaters of the Chattahoochee, I love to get out in the wild and have a marvelous day on the water.