Without a doubt, fishing is a cornerstone of civilization around the world. For cultures that flourished near bodies of water, fishing acted as a lifeline, providing the sustenance needed for survival. On a socio-cultural side, it acted as a bonding activity, allowing fisherman to build camaraderie through mutual work and tall tales of things they “saw” while fishing.
Fishing has evolved over the centuries, obviously. You can be hip-deep in the river with a fly fishing rod, watching the dip in your pole as it sits safely in a holder dug into the sand at the beach, or just simply sitting in a tin can of a boat with some buddies drinking the day away. Any way you look at it, fishing is great. It get’s better, though, when you actually catch a fish (unless you’re only there for the cheap beer, which is a perfectly valid reason to go fishing).
The thing about fish, though, is that you can’t just pop your catch off the hook and slide it down your gullet before pulling out an in-tact skeleton as if you were a real-life Heathcliff. (If you can do that, you need to have gone viral, like, yesterday.) For us non-cartoon cats, a fish needs to be scaled, gutted, and cleaned before it can be eaten. Fortunately, learning how to clean a fish is fairly simple.
What You Need to Clean a Fish
- Sharp fillet knife
- Scaling tool (or butter knife)
- Cooler of ice
- Platter for clean fish
- Disposable gloves (optional)
Preparing to Clean a Fish
The most important thing you need to know when preparing to clean a fish: clean the fish as soon as you can. If you still have a day of fishing ahead of you, try to keep your fish in water or on ice until you’re ready to clean it.
Here are some quick preparation tips:
- Since cleaning a fish is a pretty messy endeavor, you’re best off doing it outdoors. If you happen to be in a state park, you’ll likely find a cleaning station around. If not, find an outdoor table and set down some newspaper. Make sure you have access to running water before you start, as you’ll need to rinse the fish and hose down the station after you’re finished.
- Rinse the slime off the fish as best you can. It’s not any fun trying to clean a slippery fish — especially when you’re holding a sharp knife.
- After you rinse the fish, use paper towels to wipe it dry.
How to Scale a Fish
Most of the fish you’ll catch will have scales, which should be removed. Scales tend to go flying everywhere (think of fish scales like nature’s glitter), so it’s a good idea to perform this task outside. Consider working over a bucket to help catch rogue scales. If the weather is terrible, scale your fish over a deep kitchen sink.
- Remove the fish from your cooler and lay it down with its head facing your non-dominant hand. Firmly grab the head with your non-dominant hand and use your dominant hand to remove the scales with a scaling tool or butter knife. Use short, quick strokes until the fish’s body is smooth.
- Flip the fish over and scale the other side.
- Rinse off the lingering scales with water. Make sure the water pressure isn’t too high, or else you might damage that delicate fish meat.
Note: For fish with skin rather than scales (e.g. catfish), simply make a shallow cut along the pectoral fin and the length of its back, then use a pair of pliers to peel off the skin.
How to Gut a Fish
Now for the most pleasant part. Just kidding. This part is gross. However, you probably won’t think it’s gross after a week of starving in the forest (and it’s a better thing than going full Bear Grylls).
- Lay the fish on its side and place your non-dominant hand flat on top. Think of your nemesis, insert a sharp fillet knife into the fish’s anus, then bring the knife all the way to the base of the lower jaw. Don’t plunge the knife in too deep or you’ll puncture the intestines. You’ll know if you did because it will smell pretty bad.
- Pull the cavity apart and pull out the fish’s entrails. You may need to use a knife to detach the gill filaments from the base of the head. There’s no graceful way to do this. Just do it.
- Use a spoon to scrape out the liver, kidneys, and any other remaining organs. You should also remove the black stomach lining inside the cavity, as it’s not great for taste.
- Use your hose to give the cavity a good, long rinse. Again, keep the water pressure low to avoid damaging the meat.
Note: It’s safer to use a really sharp fillet knife. If you use a dull knife, you might be inclined to use more force, compromising control. Consider reading our guide on how to sharpen a knife before you dig in. Also, make sure the handle of your knife isn’t slippery.
How to Fillet a Fish
When it comes time to prep your fish for cooking, you have a few options. After scaling and gutting your fish, you can throw the whole thing on the grill or in the oven. If you prefer to fry or roast a couple slabs o’ meat, you might consider filleting your fish. Some folks fillet fish without gutting them, but beginners would be wise to gut their fish first.
- With the dorsal fin facing you, use a sharp, flexible fillet knife to cut behind the gills and pectoral fin. Cut down to the spine, but don’t sever it.
- Once the knife reaches the backbone, turn the knife flat and cut along and down the backbone. This should create a flap extending from the fish’s head to its tail.
- Lift the flap with your non-dominant hand and continue slicing at the fillet until it’s completely removed from the fish. Stay as close to the backbone as you can to maximize the amount of meat on your fillet. It’s OK to cut through the rib cage — you can always pull bones out later.
- Repeat with the other side.
- Put the fillets down on the table, skin first. Cut into the area between the skin and the meat, then remove the skin using a sawing motion. You can leave the skin on if you plan to roast the fillets.
- Rinse with cold water and pat dry with a paper towel.
Note: Depending on the type of fish, you may need to contend with spines, teeth, and sharp fins. Be extra careful when handling fish and consider wearing gloves.
How to Steak a Fish
Cutting your fish into steaks (a method typically used for bigger fish such as tuna, salmon, or mahi-mahi) is another great way to go. As with beef steaks, you can just slap these puppies on the grill, cook for a few minutes, and enjoy.
- After scaling and gutting your fish, simply make a series of cuts that are perpendicular to the spine. Work from head to tail, making each steak between one-half and one-inch thick.
- Trim away bones and fat from each steak, but leave the skin and backbone intact.
Notes: Rotting fish innards are notoriously smelly. After you’re done scaling, gutting, filleting, or steaking, clean your prep area immediately. One way to dispose of fish guts is to double bag them and keep them in the freezer until trash day. If you have more fishing to do, use the guts as bait.
Knowing how to clean a fish is essential for anglers and aspiring seafood chefs. It can also come in handy if you find yourself in a Cast Away situation (it could happen). The above suggestions should suffice for the majority of fish you catch. However, if you catch a flatfish or another unique kind of species, it’s a good idea to look up suggestions on how to clean, scale, and fillet that particular fish.
Article originally published February 5, 2015. Contributing reporting by TJ Carter, LeeAnn Whittemore, and Sam Slaughter.
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