Cooking Up a Catch: How to Cook Fish Over a Campfire

Published on 06/15/2023 · 9 min readNot sure how to best prepare your catch? Fishing expert Adam Fox shares six different ways to cook a fresh-caught fish over a campfire.
Adam Fox, Fishing Expert
By Fishing Expert Adam Fox

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan

So, you’re wondering how to cook the fish you’re planning to catch, huh? Luckily for you, I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and I have had the privilege of learning many of the various methods of doing so! Believe me, there is a wide range of options too. From the ancient “toss it in the fire” method, to more “modern” methods like pan frying or boiling, there are plenty of ways to satisfy those hunger pangs after a long, tiring day on the water. I mean it when I say this meal will satisfy you, too. I often fish for 8-12 hours without eating (I’m obsessed, not just dedicated), but fish over the fire has never let me down!

By the way, I would be remiss if I did not mention that you can find my foil-wrapped fish recipe, in full detail, along with a couple of other fireside recipes from my fellow Curated experts in this article. As I mentioned in my portion of that article, ALWAYS check to make sure that your fish is safe to eat. Make sure that it is free of internal parasites like worms, and make sure that it is kept cool from the time immediately after capture to the time of cooking in order to prevent spoilage. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get cooking!

Pan-Fried Fish Method

Photo by Adam Fox

Pan-frying fish is one of the most popular methods of cooking them indoors or shoreside. That being said, it is important to be prepared for the challenges that come with cooking outside. Many of these tips apply to more than just using a pan.

  • Make sure your fire pit is on level ground or make it so that the pan can be placed securely and level over the heat. If the pan flips, you may start an uncontrollable fire!
  • Cook on low flames or a coal bed for more even and controllable cooking temperatures and to reduce the risk of accidental fire.
  • Use cooking utensils with long enough handles to avoid the heat. This especially applies to the spatula and tongs.
  • Use high-walled pans or pots and/or cover your food to prevent ash and debris from falling on it.
  • Cast iron is the best cooking material for outdoor use (do not clean it with soap).
  • PAY ATTENTION! Cooking over a fire tends to lead to burned food more easily.

Well, now that I shared some important tips with you to keep you (and your food) safe, I’ll get to the part where I tell you how to pan-fry the fish!

You can use descaled whole fish or you can use skin-on or -off fillets. I prefer to filet larger fish and fry the smaller ones whole. You can season, bread, or batter the fish first, then place it in very hot oil. It should only take a few minutes on each side. Flip only once! Multiple flips dry out the fish and it may break apart.

If you want to deep fry the fish, make sure to leave about two inches between the top of your pan and the oil surface with food in it. Also, make sure the fish is entirely covered in oil. You will need a deep pan or a pot for this.

The fish will be white and flaky when done. Do not overcook the fish, as it will become dry in texture. Remember that food cooks for a couple of minutes after it is removed from the heat, as well. Season the fish to your liking before serving/eating. I prefer lemon, garlic, sea salt, and black pepper.

Grilled Over The Fire Method

In order to grill fish over the fire, it is important that you have a grill grate, like this one. If you have one with legs, it can be used over low flames, whereas one without legs should be propped up just above a nice hot coal bed.

I also recommend using aluminum foil over your grill surface, as well as lightly greasing the foil with cooking oil or butter before laying on the fish. Without foil, you will end up with broken-up flakes of fish in the fire during your fishing adventure; without greasing the foil, you may find a sense of relief that is only “foiled” on the next adventure because the fish is severely stuck to the cooking surface. Hey, I’m an expert but it was experiences like these that helped build me into who I am!

Anyway, you will want to grill fillets or whole fish and season them to your liking on both sides (season inside if whole). I find that laying a few lemon slices and putting a sprinkle of fresh herbs on the foil really kicks everything up a notch, too!

The “Toss it in the Fire” Method

Here, the fish are wrapped in damp twine and skewered on damp wood. Photo by Denis Agati

This is the tried and true way to cook fish dating back to somewhere between 110,000 and 165,000 years ago! As rustic as it may be, this produces some fish with incredibly flaky and delicious flavor.

All you have to do is clean your fish by removing the scales, gills, and innards, put some slits in the skin (score it), then toss it right on the coal bed. With this method, you can flip the fish multiple times. You will want to slightly char the skin so that it peels off easily before you eat the fish. Some tips to improve this method are to make sure you are burning a flavorful hardwood like maple, hickory, or oak and to add some seasoning to the inside of the fish before placing it on the coals. This is also the quickest method of cooking fish by the fire.

Smoked Fish Method

So, this is definitely a longer process than you would want for a simple dinner preparation but the results are too rewarding for me not to touch on this. Although the process is long, it is fairly simple.

All you have to do is filet the fish, remove the skin, add salt and paprika to both sides, and hang them above a smoky fire. The best wood for this is going to be cherry, hickory, or apple. It also helps immensely to have a tarp or sheet to hang above the fish to help trap the smoke. This will speed up the smoking time significantly. Covered, it will take between 5 and 8 hours depending on humidity and smoke production. Uncovered, it will take anywhere from 12-15 hours and you would need more wood. The fish should be far enough away from the fire that it does not cook, but low enough that it is in the hot smoke. It will be done when the fat that drips out of it is completely clear and it begins to flake slightly. Be careful not to overcook it, or you will end up giving the fire some extra fuel!

Fish Soup Method

Boiled fish is another one of those methods that has earned its credibility over many years and across many cultures. One of my favorite aspects of this method is that it is the most resourceful. If you haven’t had time to dedicate to experiencing the environment around you, I truly hope that you gain a great respect for eliminating waste and completely appreciating the bounty that is offered to us here as you continue your outdoor adventures!

When making the most basic fish soup, you can put the whole fish (gut fish larger than 3 inches) into the boiling water, bones and all. You would be surprised how much meat doesn’t get harvested from the belly, head, and around the fins when filleting a fish. As the fish boils, the fatty oils will make a stock. The fish will be done once it is flaky and falls off the bone with little effort. If you would like to spice up this method, feel free to start by adding carrots and potatoes to the boiling water and letting them cook partially. At that point, add celery, seasonings, and the fish. By the time the fish is done, you have yourself a beautiful fireside dish that can feed the whole family!

In-Ground Oven Method

I’m not sure if you’ve ever had a peach cobbler in a cast-iron dutch oven that had been buried in hot coals for a few hours, but this method is similar to that. In fact, you can use a dutch oven to prepare fish this way, though wrapping it in broad, green leaves is the original way to do this. If you happen to be somewhere where you can harvest some palm fronds, they would be of great use to you. The idea of this cooking method is to wrap the fish in green leaves (dry leaves will burn up) in multiple layers so that the fish can steam in the leaf pouch. Of course, the cast iron is easier and cleaner.

Basically, once you have wrapped the fish and whatever soft vegetables or spices you’d like in the leaves (or put them in the dutch oven), you dig a hole and fill it partially with hot coals. Proceed to place the wrap or the dutch oven in the hole and cover it with more hot coals. Afterward, lightly cover everything with dirt to insulate the heat. After a few hours of hiking or fishing, you will have a nice steamy meal waiting for you back at the campsite.

Although I’m sure there are various other ways to cook fish over a fire, I am going to consider my list complete (mainly because I don’t want to be a boring lecturer!). I’m still willing to bet, even without the full almanac of fish-over-the-fire recipes, that at least one of these ideas is going to become a staple in your local campground or at least at your next campfire! I’m glad I got to share with you some of the fireside cooking techniques that I’ve learned over the years, and I hope that you can take these ideas, grow on them, and pass them along to our fellow fishermen and women out there.

Before I bid you adieu, I leave you with my personal quote, “Food is part of what unites us. We may not all share the same tastes, but we share the same hunger. What determines the satisfaction of this hunger is not what you eat, rather how you eat.”

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