If there’s one silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, it could be the training of the masses to wash their hands often, use sanitizer and to employ other techniques to avoid or diminish potential contact with contaminated surfaces. Hopefully, these are lessons and practices which will remain when the pandemic is past. The Covids aren’t the only viruses and bacteria which are present and capable of causing illness.

I thought of this when I read a report which said 50% of anglers, checked for E. Coli contaminated hands, tested positive after catching just one fish. This was part of a study conducted on a popular fishing stream in Michigan. The report did reveal not all stretches of the river were equally polluted; it said most of the E. Coli in the water originated from agricultural activities and most of the polluting from ag sources comes from confined animal feeding operations.

Still, E. Coli bacteria are naturally present in the intestinal tract of most everything, from fish to fowl to mammals and humans. There are well over 200 strains; only a few produce the toxins which lead commonly to diarrhea, other digestive disorders and occasionally worse problems or even death. The study didn’t get down to the down and dirty to find if the fish were coated with the bad kind or the not-so-bad strains. They shouldn’t be coated with any of the strains — at least not so much that just catching and releasing a single fish gives an angler a 50-50 chance of getting it on his or her hands.

I’m not a germaphobe, but if I ever go fishing in the Pine River, I’m going to be darned careful. But what about so called “clean” streams. As I said, birds and mammals both have intestinal E. Coli and each time a bird or a mammal makes a dropping it releases E. Coli into whatever environment it drops. There are usually plenty of birds and wild animals around clean-streams, none of them are particularly careful of where they make their deposits.

Therefore, few streams are 100% clean. In fact, to be called “clean” they need only have less than 900 cfu/100 ml — whatever that means — of E. Coli. I can only assume that means if anglers catching and handling a fish from clean streams were tested, far less than 50% would test positive for E. Coli. How many less? I have no idea, but it’s unlikely to be zero.

Which brings me back to what I wrote at the beginning of this column, Covids aren’t the only viruses and bacteria present and capable of causing illness and now that we’ve all been trained to wash our hands often, use sanitizer and employ other techniques to avoid or diminish potential contact with contaminated surfaces, we should continue.

So if all fish are capable of being E. Coli infested, to at least a tiny degree, should anglers quit fishing or keeping fish to eat? Of course not!

What I’ve started doing is packing along a spray bottle containing a dilute bleach solution (1 tablespoon of bleach per quart of water) whenever and where ever I plan to clean some fish. I started this practice some time ago when I realized fish cleaning stations (even my own) are not sanitized to much of a degree by simply hosing off the cutting surface at the end of a fillet cutting session.

I spray down the surface where I plan to cut my fish with the bleach/water, then spray down the knives or other tools I plan to use and then spray down my hands, using the bleach solution as a sanitizing wash. At this dilution, I’ve never had problems with “bleach” stains on my clothes or gear, and no issues with getting the solution on my hands. It’s like having dilute concentrations of chlorine in a swimming pool. The bleach will kill bacteria (and viruses) and help insure the fish you are bringing home will be of the highest quality.

If a bacteria or two make it through this chemical attack, don’t be overly concerned, unless you are making sashimi. Thorough cooking will kill any leftover germs and fish contain their own temperature gauge. The meat turns from translucent pink (in salmon or trout) or gray (in walleyes and panfish) to pale pink or white when the proteins in the meat are cooked. It’s a sign the fish is done and the germs are “cooked” as well.