Just in Time for Lent: How to Scale and Clean a Fish

how to clean a fish

Fishing with your buds can be a whale of a time–especially if you catch something you can eat.

Unfortunately, you can’t just slide a whole fish down your gullet and pull out the skeleton like a cartoon cat. First you have to endure the messy but necessary task of removing the fish’s scales and innards. Fortunately, learning how to clean a fish is fairly simple.

Below are the basics:



Clean your fish soon after catching it. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. After you rinse the fish, use paper towels to wipe it dry.


Most of the fish you’ll catch will have scales, which should be removed. Scales tend to go flying everywhere, 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Flip the fish over and scale the other side.
  3. 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.


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.

  1. 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 smelly intestines.
  2. 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.
  3. Use a spoon to scrape out the liver, kidneys, and any other remaining organs. You should also remove the black lining inside the cavity, as it’s not great for taste.
  4. 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 actually 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.


When it comes to prepping 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Repeat with the other side.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


Cutting your fish into steaks 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. Tuna, salmon, mahi-mahi, and other large fish lend themselves well to steaking.

  1. After scaling and gutting your fish, simply make a series of cuts that are perpendicular to the spine. Work from head to tail, giving each steak a thickness of ½ to one inch.
  2. Trim away bones and fat from each steak, but leave the skin and backbone intact.

NOTE: 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.

If you catch a flatfish or another kind of fish, it’s a good idea to look up suggestions on how to clean, scale, and fillet that particular fish.