Cleaning A Fish 101: Prepare For Cooking

Understanding how to properly gut and fillet fish will give you a better experience and a meal your family will enjoy.

By Justin Brouillard
Fish Ambassador

When you are successful on the water, you can take a quick photo and release your catch or bring the fish home to be used for a meal. If you do decide to keep some fish to eat, make sure you know the rules and regulations of your state and only keep fish that are within season and of the correct size limit. Check out your local fish and wildlife department’s website for that information. Preparing your catch for the table is not difficult, but it helps to know the process before heading out to the lake. Understanding how to properly gut and fillet fish will give you a better experience and a meal your family will enjoy. Here is a quick rundown on how to clean your fish.

How to Clean a Fish

To easily clean fish, you need a few essentials. A good knife, a cutting board, and some sort of bowl or plastic bag is a good start. If you are at your house, have access to fresh water and a fridge close by. When you are at the lake, you can rinse your catch in the lake temporarily until you get home or bring a bottle of water to give the fish a quick rinse before cooking on the spot. Make sure your fish stay cold by bringing a cooler of ice to keep the fish fresh until you get home. Depending on the species of fish, you may also have to gut your fish. Species like trout or salmon don’t typically get filleted and should be gutted and cleaned before cooking or storage. Panfish and other game fish, such as walleye or bass, can simply be filleted, and the remains can be thrown away.

How to Fillet a Fish

Aside from trout and salmon, as mentioned above, most fish can be filleted. To fillet a fish, all you are doing is removing the pieces of boneless meat on both sides of the fish. Here is a quick step-by-step guide to help you learn.

  1. Lay the fish on its side on a cutting board or other hard, flat surface.
  2. Make a cut behind the head, downward and at a slight diagonal, that runs just behind the gills and the pectoral fin. Continue until you reach the backbone.
  3. Turn the knife a complete 90 degrees and carefully run the full blade down the fish toward the tail. Let the backbone help guide the knife while cutting through the rib cage. The dorsal fin is another good guide, getting as close as you can to the fin without cutting into it. Continue until you are about 1/4 inch from the tail.
  4. Flip the still-attached fillet over, skin-side down, and place the knife at the thinnest part of the tail and start the cut between the fillet and the skin. Using a sawing-type cut, separate the skin from the fillet, being careful to not cut into the skin.
  5. Remove any of the rib bones at the top by slicing them off the fillet.
  6. Flip the fish over and repeat the same instructions.
  7. Wash the fillets in cool, fresh water and you are either ready to cook or save for later.

How to Gut a Fish

If you do catch a trout or a salmon, you will want to gut it right away. If you are cooking them at the lake you can fish for a little while, but in warm temperatures you don’t want to wait very long. If you have a cooler, gut the fish and put it on ice until you get home. With trout and salmon, they need to remain fresh and cool or the organs and guts can contaminate the meat. To gut your fish, follow these steps.

  1. Rinse the fish with fresh lake water or a bottle of water to remove slime.
  2. Cut the gills away from the jaw to allow the fish to bleed out.
  3. Lay the fish on a cutting board, head facing away and stomach facing toward you.
  4. Insert the tip of the knife into the anus of the fish and make a straight cut along the bottom of the belly toward the gills.
  5. Grab a hold of the gills and pull away from the head to remove the insides of the fish. Rinse and remove anything else left within the cavity.
  6. Along the backbone you will see a bloodline. With your thumb, press it against the backbone at the back of the fish, and slide it forward a few times to completely remove the blood from the backbone.
  7. Wash or rinse the fish in fresh water and either cook or save for later on ice.

Store or Prepare to Cook

If you plan to eat your fish right away at the lake, simply make sure you have cleaned the fish properly and have the necessary items to do a tailgate or campfire cook. If you are going to wait until you get home to cook, keep the fish/fillets fresh and cool on ice, and in the fridge until you prepare them. Alternatively, you can prepare your catch to be frozen and enjoyed another time. The most convenient way is a freezer bag or a vacuum seal. In the freezer bag, press out all the air or submerge the fillets in water before sealing the air out. If you use a vacuum sealer, it does all the work for you.

Read up on the lakes and species near you, check the season and size limits, enjoy a day on the water and keep a few fish for a meal. You won’t regret it!

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