Prompted by the dramatic increase in the use of blood analyses in fisheries research and monitoring, this study investigated the efficacy of common field techniques for sampling and storing blood from fishes. Three questions were addressed: (1) Do blood samples taken via rapid caudal puncture (the ‘grab-and-stab’ technique) yield similar results for live v. sacrificed groups of fishes? (2) Do rapidly obtained caudal blood samples accurately represent blood properties of fishes prior to capture? (3) Does storage of whole blood in an ice slurry for a working day (8·5 h) modify the properties of the plasma? It was shown that haematocrit, plasma ions, metabolites, stress hormones and sex hormones of caudal blood samples were statistically similar when taken from live v. recently sacrificed groups of adult coho salmon Oncorhynchus kisutch. Moreover, this study confirmed by using paired blood samples from cannulated O. kisutch that blood acquired through the caudal puncture technique (mean ±s.e. 142 ± 26 s after capture) was representative of fish prior to capture. Long-term (8·5 h) cold storage of sockeye salmon Oncorhynchus nerka whole blood caused significant decreases in plasma potassium and chloride, and a significant increase in plasma glucose. Previous research has suggested that these changes largely result from net movements of ions and molecules between the plasma and erythrocytes, movements that can occur within minutes of storage. Thus, blood samples from fishes should be centrifuged as quickly as practicable in the field for separation of plasma and erythrocytes to prevent potentially misleading data.