Whether you will be in the wild for extended periods of time for adventure or due to an emergency, being able to sustain yourself by preparing food with limited resources is a useful skill to have. You will want food that is long-lasting so you don’t have to cook often and something that is rich in nutrients to keep you going. Fish jerky can be a great option.
How do you make fish jerky in the wild? To make fish jerky, these are a few common steps you’ll want to follow:
- Choose the right species of fish
- Clean, prepare, and cut the fish
- Brine the fish, if resources permit
- Hang the fish to initiate the drying process
- Monitor the jerky over a multi-day period
- Store the jerky for long-term use
Making jerky has been a successful meat preservation technique used for thousands of years. It keeps meat from spoiling over long periods of time and allows for a continuous source of protein instead of having to scarf it all at once after a kill.
Step 1. Choose the Right Species of Fish
First off, do not use pre-cooked meat. To properly dry out fish, you’ll need to keep it raw. The goal is to remove the moisture from the meat in order to prevent bacteria from growing. When you cook it, you are actually initiating the spoiling process.
Best Types of Fish to Use
The type of fish will have a large impact on your success. You can make jerky with any fish, but it will take longer to dry/could spoil more quickly with a fattier fish. While you may not have much choice in nature, you will, therefore, want to try and stick to fish with lower fat content. Fat is more difficult to dry, and it can spoil much more quickly.
Lean fish species are the easiest to use for jerky. You can preserve protein by drying the fish, but the fat can still spoil. These fish can be dried and stored without much difficulty.
If your only option is a fattier fish, you’ll just have to be more mindful of your preservation techniques and realize that it may take longer to dry. Get the fish dried as quickly as you can, then store it in a cool, dark place. It should last a while, but it won’t endure as long as leaner fish. Fat cannot be reduced typically as the fat is not separated from the valuable meat like it often is with beef.
If you do have multiple choices while fishing in the wild, these are the recommended low-fat content fish you will have greater success making jerky with:
- Most species of panfish
- Sea Trout
Many of the fish on this list are found in both freshwater and saltwater. No matter where you are located, there are likely really good options to make jerky.
Here are some examples of higher fat fish:
- Rainbow and Lake Trout
- White Fish
If you are struggling to find sustenance in the wild, you may not have time to be picky about the type of fish you are planning to dry. It is just important to note that these fish may take longer to dry or it may be more difficult in achieving consistency in drying.
Step 2. Clean, Prepare, and Cut the Fish
Make sure you use a good quality sharp knife, like my favorite one found on Amazon, since a dull blade simply will not do.
Cleaning the fish is an important step as it helps prevent contamination with excess bacteria that may be on the fish and also gets rid of bones and excess waste. A a minimum, you need to clean the fish by removing the heads and intestines. These parts aren’t edible and are likely to make the fish spoil faster. No matter how you make jerky, you need to prepare the fish the same way.
Quick Tip: When cleaning the fish, consider using water that has been boiled to wash down the fish. This will clean off excess ocean and lake water that may be filled with harmful bacteria.
Once you have cleaned the fish (you can do this again after cutting to the usable meat), it is time to start processing it for drying. The steps you need to follow will depend on the size and type of fish you have caught. Some fish can be preserved whole, while others require a great deal of processing before you can preserve them.
Preparing Small Fish
Small fish that are less than an inch thick can be butterflied and preserved whole. To butterfly a fish, open the body cavity like the wings of a butterfly. Remove the intestines and clean the cavity out. The inside of the body and the outside should both be exposed to the air. Use small twigs or toothpicks to pin the body open if necessary.
Here is a short video on how to butterfly a small fish:
Processing Larger Fish:
Large fish will need to be filleted in order to create strips to make jerky. Just keep in mind, that the various shapes and sizes of fish can create unique challenges and a bit of skill. I recommend that you have someone with a lot of experience show you how to do this before you try it yourself.
Here are the basic steps to filleting fish:
- Scale the fish: Scale fish by scraping against the direction of the scales (tail to head) with a spoon, the back of a knife, or another dull tool. The scales will flip up and come loose. Make sure to rinse the fish thoroughly – the scales often stick to the skin even after they are loose. The scales would interfere with the texture of the final product, and they do not provide the primary nutrients you are seeking. Try to get off as much as you can. This will allow for your brine (If used) to make better contact and absorb more successfully with the usable meat.
- Keep the skin on if warranted: Fish with small scales (trout and salmon, for example) can be preserved with the skin on. After you have scraped off the scales, you will not have to alter the surface of the fish any further. You can eat the skin, and it actually helps dry out the fish, so keep it on these types of fish. Scaly fish (bass, perch, bluegills, and other panfish) must be skinned or scaled prior to preserving. Skin fillets by pressing them, skin side down, on a flat surface. Guide your knife through the fillet just above the skin. Keep the blade flat against the cutting surface.
- Cut into fillets: Larger fish should be filleted. To fillet fish, slice the meat off the bones. Start at the spine and keep the knife close to the ribs. This lets you get off the large pieces of meat without any bones. The fillet is the bulk of the fish meat, and it should be cut from both sides of the fish to be left with two larger slices with the bones connecting the head to the tail remaining.
- Remove excess bones if preferred: While you have cut the fillets from the majority of the fish bones, there can still be some rib bones and hard to see pin bones that are still attached. You can remove all the bones at this point, or leave them in. Some people find it easier to remove the bones from the fish after it’s dried, while others like to get it done at the start. It doesn’t make any difference in the preserving process either way. This will require careful inspection by running your fingers up the fillet to feel for them. The number of excess bones will be dependent on the type of fish you are using.
- Slicing jerky strips, if necessary: If the fish fillets are overly thick, you will want to cut them down to size a bit. The fillets for preserving should be no thicker than the width of a finger. If you can swing it, thinner fillets are better. As common sense would suggest, the thinner the piece of fish, the faster it will dry and be safe from spoilage. Your goal is to get the edible parts of your catch into pieces that will dry quickly and at a consistent rate. Try to keep the pieces the same thickness. Thickness is the most significant determinant of drying time, so cutting everything to the same depth means all your fish will be done at the same time. With your deboned fillets, you will want to slice the fillets into thin strips. I recommend thinly slicing them into consistently sized strips. 3/8” strips typically work very well.
Here is a quick video showing the basic steps to filleting fish:
Making jerky means that you want to be drying the fish to preserve it. This is easiest when the fish is sliced very thinly. Sun and wind can more easily make contact with all the meat when it is thin. The thinner strips will allow for more complete drying and help all of the strips to dry at the same time.
If you are on the go, you’ll want them to all be done at the same time so you can move onto your next location if needed. It will also be easier to see how the fish should look when dried if all the pieces are nearly the same size and consistency.
Step 3. Brine the Fish (Optional)
Brining can extend the life of jerky. Salt has been used for thousands of years to preserve meats and foods. Fish jerky finds its roots over 500 years ago in Europe, Asia, and what are now the Americas when food preservation was more difficult.
Brine is a solution of salt and water. If you keep adding salt to boiling water until no more will dissolve, the result is about 10% salt. Most true jerky recipes start with brining the fish. Brining fish this way results in a much less salty product that you can eat as it is, without soaking.
Jerky can be easily made by brining, or soaking fish in saltwater, before you allow it to dry. Salt prevents contamination by bacteria and will keep your fish from spoiling.
When in the wild, you may or may not have easy access to salt but you should always bring some salt with you in your “survival kit.” However, not just any salt will do.
The best salt for brining is called “pickling salt” that does not contain iodine. Here is a good brand (Click to see Amazon Listing) that works really well for making jerky. If you do not have access to salt, there are a number of different ways in which you can find it. The easiest, if you are close to the ocean, is to boil down salt water.
Salt from saltwater sources can easily be extracted by boiling the water. The water will evaporate, and you will be left with salt crystals. This can also be done by leaving it in the sun, but it will take longer.
It is important to note that saltwater from an ocean or body of water (such as salt lakes) should not be used directly to brine your fish. Bacteria in the water can be harmful for consumption.
To brine the fish:
- Use about a 6:1 ratio of water to salt: Measuring cups are not easily accessible in the wild, but this general ratio will allow your fish to be properly soaked in the saltwater mixture. 1 cup of salt into a gallon of water is about right.
- Use a solid container: If you have access to large leaves or curved (cleaned out) pieces of wood, this can serve as a good bowl or container if you do not have other options
- Bring the water to a boil and pour in the salt: Stir until all the salt has dissolved. Let the water cool completely (otherwise, you’re poaching the fish). Soak the fish in brine for about an hour. Remove them and dry the fish using the directions above.
- Allow enough time: Fish fillets will take about an hour to brine. After that time, they have mostly absorbed all the salt they are likely to hold. Extra brining won’t change much. So don’t worry if you get busy and forget your brine for a couple of hours.
After you finish soaking the fish in the brine, you should pat it down to remove excess water. If you have salt leftover, coat the fish in salt like a dry rub. This provides an extra layer of protection from bacteria.
Brines are nearly foolproof ways to get some salt into fish. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that brined fish is preserved, though. Brining is just a starting step that makes drying the fish easier.
Dry salting the fish:
You can also salt the fish strips without creating a brine. Dry salting is also an option:
- Put a half-inch of salt in the bottom of your bowl, then place a layer of fish on it. Make sure the fish is flat, and the pieces aren’t touching.
- If you are using butterflied small fish, make sure they are open, and all parts of the lower side are touching the salt.
- Add a layer of salt above the fish to completely cover them. If you have more fish, add another layer of fillets and bury them in salt. Keep it up until all your fish are covered in salt.
After a few hours, the fish will shed water, and the bowl will be full of brine instead of dry salt. This is fine–just make sure all the fish is submerged in the brine. For every inch your fish is thick, it will take 24 hours to cure the fish. Once it’s salted through, remove the fish from the brine and brush off the extra salt. At this point, the fish will keep for a week or two, depending on temperature.
If you would like to keep the fish longer, you can dry it at this point. The salt will protect it from insects and short-term spoilage; you can dry it in the open air, over a fire, or in a cold smoker. Any of these methods will keep the salted fish from spoiling for a long, long time.
Not much can go wrong with this method. It was the most popular way to preserve fish before freezing was invented because it’s so easy. The only catch is that fish preserved in pure salt come out very, very salty. Traditionally, salted fish is either soaked in water for 24 hours before it is eaten, or it is used in large pots of stew that can absorb the extra salt. Either way, you need to get the fish into lots of water before eating it.
Step 4. Dry the Fish
Preserving food means protecting it from decay caused by bacteria. One of the easiest ways to do this is to remove the water from the internal structure of the food. Remove enough water, and bacteria can’t survive to break the food down. Most pre-industrial food preservation methods rely on removing water in one way or another. In other words, drying the food out.
Every culture that uses fish as a major food source has ways of drying fish, and many have more than one way. Different methods require different equipment, a wide range of ingredients, and varying levels of effort. Depending on your situation, any one of them may be appropriate. Here are some of the best ways to dry fish.
Air drying is the simplest way to dry fish, but it’s also the easiest to mess up. Take your fillets or butterflied fish and hang them on a stick or string so air can circulate around them. Put the sticks in the bright sun so that they get warm. Let the sun and air work on the fish for a few days until it’s dry.
To initiate the drying process, you will want to hang it so that sun and wind (nature’s oven) can have access to the most surface area. Make sure the fish gets exposed to full sun. Make sure the fillets aren’t crowed on the strings to that they shade each other. If you can make sure that the fish is also exposed to a steady breeze, that’s even better.
I recommend hanging the fish high enough off the ground so that animals will not have access to it, and it will have direct access to sunlight. Keep it in areas that do not have significant tree coverage for faster and more consistent drying.
You can hang the fish with whatever method you find effective, but here are some ideas that work well depending on the environment:
- A piece of wood: Try hanging a long stick horizontally or using a tree branch that lets the fish hang easily without touching
- Twine or string: You can use string or twine to hang to sticks and then to the fish. You can also use the string as your line to hold the fish from. Attach additional string or hooks to the tightly drawn line.
- Metal hooks: If you have access to hooks (clean ones) this can be the easiest and prevent any loose wood or debris from other hanging methods to be left on or in the fish after hanging. This could be unused fish hooks that are attached to the twine or string.
This hanging should only be done during the day when the sun is up. At night, you’ll want to keep the fish from getting moist as temperatures drop and dew sets in, so you may need to take it down and store it somewhere drier. Moisture can create premature spoiling so keep it somewhat hidden at nighttime. You will need to rehang it each day in order to expose it to the most sunlight and wind possible.
The more exposure to the day time elements the fish receive, the faster the fish will be able to dry. Wind is an important addition to sun as it allows air to pass through the fish, both drying it out further and keeping it from cooking.
What Can Go Wrong
Everything. This is the simplest way to dry fish, but it might be the most difficult. It works best in hot, dry weather. It doesn’t work at all in cool or humid weather. Insects might want to feast on the fillets. If the fish takes more than one day to dry, morning dew can set the process back.
Ultra-thin fillets work best for this method. The thinner the fillet, the faster the water comes out. If the fillets need more than one day to dry, bring them under cover at night to protect from dew. If insects are a problem, you can cover the fish with thin fabric as protection.
If you are facing cool weather, high humidity, or insect pressure, you probably need to step up your game and use the next method to dry the fish.
Open Fire Drying
The next step up from open-air drying is drying with a fire. It provides extra heat for cool or humid days. The key here is that you want to keep the fish warm, so that it will dry. You don’t want to cook the fish, so avoid high heat.
The key to drying over an open fire is to get enough heat to pull out water, but not so much that the surface sears. Use your hand as a temperature gauge. If you can’t keep your hand in place for more than a few seconds, pull the fish back. You should feel the heat – maybe even some discomfort. You might want to rotate the fish every few hours to even out the heat exposure.
A smoky fire can also keep insects away. Heavy smoke isn’t necessary, just a thin stream of smoke to irritate the insects. Hardwoods are best for smoking – oak, beech, and alder are all traditional fish cooking woods. Avoid softwoods like pine if you can. These woods contain chemicals that don’t taste good when cooked.
If softwood is all you have, just use smoke long enough to dry the surface of the fish; this is enough to protect from insects. Once the outside is dry, reduce the smoke level as the fish continues drying.
What Can Go Wrong
The biggest danger in drying over an open fire is cooking the fish rather than drying. Keep an eye on the fish to make sure it isn’t cooking, or worse–burning. Use dry wood for the drying fire instead of green wood or other material. Since the fish is exposed to open air, temperatures will be inconsistent and drying times will vary. This process requires lots of attention and a willingness to mess up.
The next step from drying fish over an open, smoky fire is smoking the fish. Smoking uses heat and smoke to cure the fish but does so in an enclosed chamber to keep the smoke in contact with the fish. In addition to drying the fish, smoking adds a layer of smoke to the outside of the fish that protects against insects and germs even after the fish is removed from the smoker.
There are two processes for smoking fish – cold smoking and hot smoking. Cold smoking happens at temperatures less than 100°. Hot smoking occurs at temperatures between 150° and 250°. (If the temperature is between 100° and 150°, the fish is drying rather than smoking.) Once the temp goes over 250°, you are baking the fish.
We aren’t going to talk about hot smoking here. It is a cooking process that produces fish ready for the table without preserving the fish. Hot-smoked fish is delicious, but you better eat it right away.
Cold smoking is a more consistent process than air- or fire-drying fish. Since all the fillets are enclosed in a smoker, they all receive the same treatment at the same time. It’s an excellent way to preserve fish in cold weather when air drying isn’t feasible. It also uses less fuel than open fire drying.
Cold smoking doesn’t require a lot of smoke. You just need a thin trickle into the smoker. It will build up during the day, and the smoke will gradually adhere to the outside of the fish. Too much smoke will cause the fish to turn black and taste like, well, smoke. Over-smoking is a more significant risk than under-smoking.
What Can Go Wrong
Too much smoke will make your fish taste awful, but it will keep the fish from spoiling. Too much heat will cook the fish before the water is pulled out – eat that fish right away. (You’ll be glad you did.)
Wood quality is particularly important for smoked fish. Since smoke is the main flavor additive, using pine or other softwoods will ruin the fish. It will have a piney, chemical taste instead of a sweet, smoky flavor. Stick to hardwoods exclusively for cold-smoking.
Step 5. Monitor the Fish For Multiple Days
Drying fish will take many hours because you are relying on the sun and wind to dry it.
You should be flipping the fish regularly so that both sides have enough exposure to the sun.
Sunlight needs to be bright to be effective, so move the location of the fish if they are not receiving enough sun exposure. Bad weather will, of course, delay the process.
Your level of success is dependent on three main factors:
- Sunlight: You will want as much sun exposure as possible. The greater amounts of sunlight will speed the process up.
- Wind: Warm air circulating across the meat is really helpful.
- Humidity: Low humidity (less moisture in the air) will allow for more favorable drying results. High humidity does not allow the fish to remove moisture as effectively.
The process can take several days. You will see the greatest drying results in the first day or two, and then this drying will slow down. You’ll want to keep an eye on the fish so that you can keep bugs and excess debris away from the meat.
Handy Tip: If you want to add some flavor to your fish, you can consider burning a fire nearby. The smoke from the fire will permeate and give the fish a somewhat smoky flavor without having to actually smoke it. Be sure that the heat source is far enough away that it does not directly cook the fish. You are simply looking for the smoke to be present in the air for flavor.
When It’s Done
- With air-dried jerky, you’ll know the fish is done when the outside is dry to the touch, and the fillets aren’t flexible any longer. They don’t have to be so dry that the fish breaks when bent, but it should be stiff and resist bending, or even fold when bent. Floppy fish needs more time to dry.
- With brined jerky, it’s done when the outside is dry, and the texture is no longer rubbery, but stiff. Fillets thinner than your finger will usually dry in eight to twelve hours. However, drying time depends on temperature. Fish placed close to the fire will dry faster than fish further away.
- With smoked jerky, the smoke has done its work when the outside is dry to the touch, and the fish has taken on a slight brown cast. This usually takes twelve to sixteen hours. Once the outside of the fish is smoked, you can store it in a cool, dark place, or you can put it in the sun for further air drying.
If you do everything correctly, you should have strips of jerky that are chewy but not hard. Perfectly dried fish jerky can be eaten out of hand just like any other jerky. If you did it wrong, or if you dry-salted the fish, you will need to do some prep work before eating the fish.
If it’s too salty
If the fish is overly dry or salty, the best fix is water. Recipes for traditional dried or salted fish usually call for soaking the fish for a day or more to reduce the salt and soften the fish.
Put the fish in just enough water to cover it and let it soak. The fish will soften, and salt will leach out. For really tough fish, pounding it after soaking helps break the meat down further. Changing the water once during soaking helps with very salty fish.
Step 6. Store the Jerky Properly
Once your fish is dry, the shelf life should last you a couple of months if it is stored properly. For your purposes, you will probably only need to store the jerky for days or weeks at a time before having access to civilization again.
You want to make sure the fish is fully dried before you store it because extended storage with moisture still present can lead to risks of bacteria and illness. You will know that jerky is dried and ready to store if it has a leathery, chewy texture and is slightly brittle.
To store the jerky, you should make sure:
- It is cooled off from drying: After spending time in the sun, you should place it in a cool area so that no heat is present. If you store the fish while it is warm, it can allow the fish to sweat. In a closed container, this creates moisture that can lead to mold and bacteria.
- You use a sealed container: You will want to store the fish jerky in an airtight or sealed container so that it is not exposed to the air for long periods of time. I recommend just carrying a bunch of Mylar ziplock bags, like these heavy-duty ones found on Amazon, in your survival kit. If you’re at home simple plastic containers will work just fine for storage.
- Cool location: The colder the location, the longer it will last. Burying the jerky out of the sun or under shaded ground during the day can help it remain cooler. Keeping fish jerky at 70-74 degree temperatures (Fahrenheit) will potentially allow it to last for a month or longer.
The main thing is to keep as much air and moisture away from the jerky possible.
Making Fish Jerky in the Oven or Dehydrator
It is much, much easier to make fish jerky if you have electric appliances. That’s not realistic for a survival scenario, but it is the best way to go if you have caught a mess of fish and want to try some different ways to prepare it.
Ovens as Dehydrators
You don’t have to have a fancy dehydrator, like this one found on Amazon, to make fish (or other kinds) of jerky. Your oven is an excellent dehydrator and can make fantastic jerky. The key to using an oven to make jerky is to keep the temperature as low as you can. If your oven has a “warm” setting, that’s the one to use. If it doesn’t, use 150°.
To make fish jerky in the oven, start by cutting the fish into fillets or thin strips. The fish should be no thicker than your finger. Soak the fillets in brine for an hour, then remove them. Pat the fillets dry and place them on baking racks. Make sure none of the pieces touch. Place the racks in the oven and let the fish dry for about twelve hours.
When it’s done, the fish should be dry to the touch and just slightly soft. It shouldn’t be stiff or hard. Let the jerky cool, then eat it or store it away for later.
Using a Dehydrator
The ultimate way to make any kind of jerky is with a purpose-built food dehydrator. If you happen to own one, it’s a great way to make fish jerky. Follow the directions for your model to make fish jerky.
What Can Go Wrong
The biggest risk in making jerky in an oven or dehydrator is overcooking. Don’t let the heat get too high, and don’t let the fish sit in the heat too long. Either one will result in fish bricks instead of fish jerky. Unless you are facing a life-and-death food shortage, overdried fish won’t be worth eating.
Now that you know the process of making fish jerky in the wild, I have come up with some helpful tips to help with your success and enjoyment of the process.
- Spices: If you have any access to spices or herbs while you are making jerky, this can add more flavor. If you make sure of local flora or fauna, make sure that the plants you do use are safe and not poisonous.
- Lean fish: One of the top tips for making any kind of jerky is to use thin meats, if possible. If you can find thinner fish, you will have much better results. A good rule of thumb is eat the fat fish now, save the thin fish for later.
- Fresh fish: You want to make sure the fish you use is fresh. Meat that is already starting to spoil will only worsen when you put it in the sun for more drying. Try to make the jerky within a few hours of catching the fish.
- Colder fish is easier to cut: If you can keep your fish cold before preparing it for jerky, you’ll have a much easier time trying to cut it.
- Don’t dry it too long: Once you hit that chewy, pliable texture you are looking for, you no longer have to dry it. Going overboard with drying can take away from the nutrients and the flavor.
- Go with your gut: If you think the jerky looks funky, smells bad, or doesn’t look like it dried properly then don’t eat it.
- Be generous with salt: Jerky is not only the process of drying meat, but it is the process of preserving meat with the use of salt. Salt is a crucial step in making sure that the moisture is removed from the fish and that it doesn’t spoil. You can use a wet brine with the saltwater or a salt rub to achieve successful results.
Give It a Try
Drying fish to make jerky isn’t difficult or complicated. Whether you are alone in the wild or a well-stocked kitchen, there is a way to preserve fish by drying.
Make sure the pieces are thin enough, add heat and salt if you can, and give them time. You’ll have a chewy, delicious treat in just a few days. The next time you catch more fish than you can eat right away, try making some fish jerky. You’ll be glad you did.
Making jerky is a really useful option to have in your toolbox if you need long-lasting food and is actually a fairly simple process.
While it is easier to do this in the comfort of your kitchen with a more reliant heating source, such as an oven or dehydrator, you can still make fish jerky in nature. Native populations have relied on the sun for many years to complete many of these preservation techniques. Let’s dive deeper into how you can make fish jerky in the wild!
You should now be able to make great fish jerky with limited resources in the wild. The key is to follow all the steps carefully your first couple of attempts. Do it right and it will give you the luxury of going for days without having to find a new food source.
You should be keeping food safety and spoiling in mind consistently throughout this process. Leaving fish in the sun can be quite dangerous if consumed when the preparation method is not followed. You will want to make sure your health and safety is a top priority when making your fish jerky.
Beyond providing yourself with sustenance, being able to make your own jerky is a pretty cool skill to have! It proves that you don’t have to be in a kitchen to make a nutrient-rich and sustainable meal for yourself. Whether you are stuck in the wild on purpose or not, knowing how to make fish jerky can be incredibly useful!
How long does fish jerky last? In airtight packaging, fish jerky can last up to two months. Once opened and re-exposed to the air, it should be consumed within a week.
What does fish jerky taste like? Taste depends on the type of fish used. For example, trout will tend to have a slightly sweet flavor while perch will tend to have a firmer texture and even a slightly “fishy” flavor.
Does fish jerky need to be refrigerated? While it does not need to be refrigerated, fish jerky should be stored properly in an airtight container. Even so, refrigerating or freezing jerky can extend the shelf-life significantly.
Legal Note: Make fish jerky at your own risk. Survivalfreedom.com will not be held responsible for any ill effects that might happen from consuming fish jerky that was not created properly.
Main image courtesy of Steven Depolo
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