How to Clean a Fish: Gut a Fish, Scale a Fish, Fillet a Fish

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Freshwater and Saltwater provide a bounty of fish that are great for eating. In order to eat your fish, you need to learn how to clean your fish. Common white meat species like Walleye and Perch simply require you to know how to fillet a fish. However, understanding how to gut a fish and how to scale a fish allows you to preserve your catch longer and correctly prepare Salmonid species. Here is a break down of the tools and procedures for how to clean fish in preparation for the table.

How to Clean a Fish: Preparation

In order to properly clean and process your catch, you need access to a few essentials. Fish cleaning requires a sharp knife, a cutting board, a bowl, a trash bag, and a fresh source of water. Discarded scraps and carcasses go in the trash bag, your fresh fillet’s go into the clean bowl. If you aren’t cooking your catch right away, it should be kept cool on ice or in a refrigerator until you are ready to prepare it. Remember to keep your fish alive in a live-well or stringer until it is time to fillet your catch. If you are unable to keep your fish alive, or you are fishing for Trout or Salmon, make sure to gut your fish right after you catch it and store it in a cooler.

How to Gut a Fish

If keeping your fish fresh and cool is not an option you’ll need to gut the fish on the water. Gutting maintains freshness and prevents the blood and organs from contaminating the meat.

Step 1. Rinse fish in cold water and wipe down slime and debris

Step 2. Cut the gill away from the jaw to bleed the fish out

Step 3. Lay the fish with the stomach facing toward you and insert the tip of the knife into the anus.

Step 4. Cut the underbelly of the fish in a straight line from the anus to the gills.

Step 5. Grab the gills and pull outwards to remove the insides

Step 6. Rub against the sides and rinse to remove anything leftover

If your fish is a Salmonid (Trout or Salmon) it is important to remove the blood sack from along the backbone, otherwise it will bleed into the meat. Remove the bloodline after you gut the fish by pressing a spoon our your thumb against the inside of the spine. Work the blood sack back and forth until the blood has drained completely. This step is not necessary for white meat fish like Perch and Walleye.

How to Scale a Fish (Scaling is Optional)

If you prefer to consume your fish with the skin on, you will need to remove the scales. The skin can provide a more robust flavor and is preferably left on when smoking or roasting a fish whole. Use the back edge of your knife to scrape the scales off, working from tail to head. After roughly 90% of the scales are removed, rinse and wipe down any loose scales stuck to the skin. Smoking and roasting are more advanced methods of preparation. For your typical skinless fillet, you can skip scaling your fish.

How to Fillet a Fish

The most common way to process your fish is to fillet it. Filleting a fish means to remove two large pieces of boneless meat from each side of the fish. This is the ideal method for beginners learning how to clean a fish.

Step 1. Lay the fish on the cutting board and make a cut behind the gills and the pectoral fin until you reach the backbone.

Step 2. Turn your knife toward the tail so it lays flat against the backbone.

Step 3. Cut along the backbone through the ribs and belly until you are roughly 1/4″ from the tail.

Step 4. Flip the slab over so that the skin side of the fillet is laying on the cutting board.

Step 5. Slant your knife to a 45° angle near the base of the tail, drawing your knife back and forth until you are underneath the meat

Step 6. Lay your knife flat and work it back and forth against the grain of the skin to separate the skin from the fillet

Step 7. To easily remove the rib bones, cut out the semi-circle outline by the belly of the fish.

Step 8. Rinse your fillets with cold water.

Step 7 is the most efficient way to completely remove the rib bones. Alternatively, you can separate the rib bones from the belly by working the blade underneath the rib-cage from the lateral line of the meat down through the dorsal. This method is more advanced and easily botched. A beginner will typically leave more bones on in comparison to meat harvested so we recommend to simply cut out the rib-cage entirely.

Storing your Fillet

If you aren’t eating your catch right away, you should store your fillet by freezing it. When freezing your fillets, it is important to remove air from the storage compartment. Trapped air can cause loss of flavor and tarnish the flakiness of the fillet. It is also important to rinse your fillets with cold water and dry with a paper towel or cloth before storing your fillet. Otherwise leftover insides can contaminate the meat and negatively affect flavor. Now that your fillets are squeaky clean you can prep them for freezer storage.

Freezing your Fillet

The three most common ways to store fillets for freezing are wrapping, freezer bagging and vacuum sealing. Wrapping the fillet is the most traditional method. First, wrap the meat with plastic wrap or tin foil and then wrap a layer of freezer paper around it. This method is best for compacting your fillet in tight storage. Freezer bagging your fillet is the most convenient. Simply zip them up on their own or submerge them in water within the bag to lock out as much air as possible. Vacuum sealing your fillet is the most effective option. Using vacuum locked bags or a processor, you can virtually remove all air and compress your fillets into tight packaging. However, vacuum sealing is requires additional equipment and know-how. Simply freezer bagging your first fillet will do the trick.

Prepping Your Fillet for Cooking

After you’ve processed and stored your catch, you’ll eventually want to cook it. Thaw out your meat by placing the packaging in a bowl of water at room temperature. This thawing method typically takes 30 min to an hour. You can use quicker defrosting methods, however you run the risk of cooking your meat prematurely. Once thawed, wash your filet under a faucet. Check your fillets for any bones missed by gently rubbing the meat under the running water. Once the bones are totally gone, pat down your fillet with a paper towel so it is dry and ready to cook. Some common styles of cooking fish are frying, baking, and smoking fish.

If You Know How to Fillet a Perch, You Know How to Clean a Fish

A Perch was used to demonstrate how to fillet your fish. The same steps for filleting your Perch can be used to fillet most of the popular species in Freshwater & Saltwater. The gutting and scaling methods in this article were shown on a Trout. However, these gutting and scaling steps can be duplicated on any fish species. Fish with more complex bone structures such as Pike and Catfish require a few more steps to get an ideal fillet. We will cover more advanced methods for cleaning complex fish in a future post.

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