Simple Tricks to Get Fish Smell off Your Hands

We all love to catch fish, and there is no better way to prove your success than the fishy smell on your hands.  The notorious smell may be your trophy but not everyone will share your excitement.  

After enough disgusted looks and upturned noses, it is time to wash away the fish slime.  Undoubtedly, you have noticed that soap and water just won’t cut it.  After repeat washings, the stench still lingers.  With a great deal of experimentation and research, we have compiled a collection of simple tricks, using easy to find household items, that will rid your hands of all fishiness.     

Why do fish stink?

Fish stink, and some more than others.  Dead fish definitely smell worse than those alive.  Understanding the reason why is important when finding the best methods for removing it from your hands.   

Fish scales are coated in a mucous layer, providing them with protection from bacterial infection and other hazards present in the water.  This is what makes fish slippery and hard to hold.  However, the actual “fishy” odor comes from a chemical compound called trimethylamine oxide, or TMAO.  The primary function of TMAO is to maintain the fluid and salt balance their cells require to live under water.

Saltwater fish contain higher concentrations of TMAO than freshwater species, which is why freshwater fish tend to have a milder smell. 

Yet all fish smell worse once they are dead.  This is because TMAO is converted to trimethylamine (TMA) by bacteria and enzymes after a fish is removed from the water. 

TMA produces a much more pungent and long lasting odor.  Not to worry though.  The rest of this post will focus on simple household remedies that will help you smell fresh and clean once more.

Neutralize odor with household acids

Take a look in your pantry or fridge and you will likely find several methods for neutralizing fish odors.  Acidic liquids, such as lemon juice, vinegar and even ketchup, will effectively eliminate the smelly compounds from your hands.

Simply rub your hands with a generous amount of either liquid and let it sit for a minute or two.  Then, wash your hands with warm, soapy water.   

If you have any cuts on your hands, be aware, lemon juice will sting.   

Scrub with something abrasive

Sometimes the fish smell just won’t go away.  The slimy coating on fish is designed to stick.  If it can cling to a fish in water, it certainly will adhere to your skin.  By using a gentle abrasive, you can scrub away the top most layer of skin and take the bad smell with it.

The most popular odor eliminating exfoliant, and in my opinion, the most effective, is toothpaste.  The kind that contains baking soda is best.  Take a large dab and rub it vigorously all over your hands.  The same scrubbing action that removes plaque and bacteria from your teeth will also remove loose skin on your hands.  Follow up with a wash in warm, soapy water.

Regular table salt is also a good abrasive.  Add a bit of salt to any of the acidic liquids mentioned above and you have got yourself a powerful scent remover.    

Bonus tip: Clip your finger nails before cleaning your hands.  Fish grime likes to hide under nails.  A quick trim and you can scrub it all away.

Cleaners from the store

Many commercially available hand cleaners are extremely effective at removing fishy smells, and you may already have some lying around the house.

For those who spend time in the garage with grease covered hands, you probably have a bottle of Gojo orange soap.  This abrasive, citrus based, hand cleaner can be found in most automotive shops.  It works well against fishy smells by combining acidic citrus with an exfoliating scrub.

Among the more unique ways to remove odor is a stainless steel odor absorber such as the Amco Rub-a-Way bar.  As odd as it sounds, the metal binds with the odors produce by fish and other strong smelling foods such as onions and garlic.  Rub your hands over the stainless steel bar, wet or dry, and presto, no more smell.  Many who are serious about cooking have a bar lying around their kitchen.  Why not add one to your tackle box.

If convenience and portability are preferred, then sanitizing hand wipes will fit the bill.  Take a few hand wipes along while fishing and easily clean your hands before having a snack or heading home.  These are also ideal for overnight fishing trips when proper hand washing is not possible.

Prevent the smell in the first place

No, I don’t mean you should just not catch fish, but there are some easy ways to avoid getting most of the fishy smell on your hands.  

Remember that live fish smell less than dead fish, so try catch and release fishing.  When done properly, you can land a fish and release it back to the wild without even pulling it out of the water.  Except for a quick picture.  

To catch and release a fish and avoid fishy hands, first, wet your hands before touching the fish.  This creates a barrier between the slimy coating on the scales and your skin.  Then, use pliers to remove the hook while the fish is still in the water.  Use barbless hooks to make it easier to remove with less handling.  While keeping fish submerged, gently hold upright and allow them to swim away when they are ready.

A net will also help land your catch with minimal handling.  Try using a knotless net, which is less harmful for the fish.

After the fish swims away, rinse your hands in the water.  Once you get good at it, you will eventually be able to release fish without even touching them.  

If you want to keep fish for eating, then it will take a bit more effort to keep the smell off your hands.  Here are a couple tips to make it easier.

Once you take the fish out of the water, it will start to smell worse by the minute.  Quickly take whatever photos you want while it is alive. Quick tip: live fish are more colorful and look better in photos than dead ones.  

After you get your photo, put the fish in a cooler with ice and don’t touch it again until you are ready to process it for consumption.

When it comes time to clean and prepare the fish for eating, put on a pair of medical exam nitrile or latex gloves.  Use nitrile gloves if you have latex allergies.  Gloves will go a long ways to prevent the worst of the smell.

Combine these smell preventing tips with your favorite hand washing method described earlier and you have a sure-fire way to be stench free.

Final thoughts

Certainly, there are many more ways to rid your hands of fish odors.  Try a few of the methods listed in this post to find what works best for you.  Hopefully you have enough fishing success to keep experimenting for a long time to come.  Catch fish, wash hands, rinse and repeat!