The humble Cooler, or ‘the Chilly Box’ as our friends from New Zealand call it, doesn’t cost much, lasts decades, and is worth its weight in gold when the fish are running.
Size: We have two:
1) a 128 ish quart is a workhorse that can hold up to a dozen sockeye salmon with ice. (Sockeye’s are often different sizes depending on what river/lake system they come from). You can fillet the fish on top of the cooler which keeps the operation outside in the driveway. That way you don’t slime out the kitchen. At our place the top of the driveway is near the hose bib which makes for easy wash-up. It’s also close to the mudroom door so I can drag the cooler inside if it’s late and I want to leave some of the job until morning. Bring it inside so the bears don’t get into it.*
As you get older, hills get steeper every year and big coolers of fish and ice get heavier. We like to support the local fishers by buying direct from the boats. It’s a win, win, win. Less expensive for us, pays more to the fishers, and we know who caught the fish, when they caught it, and that it was taken good care of. That said, living where the harbor ramps go up and down on 20 foot tides, you don’t need to muscle the harbor cart with your cooler up a steep ramp at low tide. Arrange to meet the fisher around high tide if you can. Get a harbor cart, put the cooler on. The ramp will be almost straight out to the dock. Easy peasy. It can still be a heavy lift from the cart to the truck so you might want to bring a friend. It’s good form to give them a fillet. Even better, invite them to supper of grilled salmon.
When you buy from the boats they’ll likely have extra flake ice in the fish hold. They’ll usually share some but sometimes it’s got slime on it and sometimes they need it to hold their fish until they can sell them. We’re lucky here in that we’ve got a cold storage where you can pick up super cold flake ice yourself. Put a layer in the bottom of the cooler, then a layer of fish, repeat until full. If there’s no flake ice available, bags of ice cubes poured around the fish will do the job. Our local liquor stores give you a free bag of ice when you buy something. The big thing is to keep the fish cold.
Our big cooler has a little hatch in the lid. The idea, I guess, was to be able to grab something without opening the lid. It’s not a good feature because rain leaks through the crease and melts the ice. Plus you end up opening the whole lid anyway because you can’t reach whatever you’re after. Not a deal breaker but if you’ve got the option go with the solid lid. You’ll probably break the hinges off at some point. Hardware stores sell extras but you don’t really need hinges.
2) a 40 ish quart cooler: No need to drag the big cooler around for more ice if you need it, or if you’re only getting a few fish, or just to chill a few beers on the back deck. A small cooler’s handy if you’re sending a few pounds of meat or fish to friends.
When you get a big slug of fish, meat, or poultry, coolers will hold them for several days while you’re working them up. Most people don’t have enough space or quick freezing capacity in the chest freezer to add forty pounds of animal protein all at once. It’s better not to since all that mass warms up the inside of the freezer more than is good for the frozen food already in there.
Other cooler benefits. You can:
: brine a couple gallons of fish in the cooler with ice that would otherwise overload the refrigerator.
: thaw your thanksgiving turkey or roast.
: put frozen food in the cooler when you’re defrosting the chest freezer.
: if the power goes out for an extended time, most of your food in the chest freezers will be okay for a few days as you shuttle it out to the propane canning station in coolers. The coolers will hold enough for a couple batches in the pressure canner. That way you don’t have to keep opening the chest freezer which would let the cold out.
*One time, just one, I left some sockeyes outside in a cooler for a co-worker. Got called for a dive job. When I got back the cooler was down by the road. “Why’d he leave it down there?” He hadn’t. The muddy paw prints and teeth marks in the chilly box told the story. Bad show on my part. Loose food is dangerous for bears and people.