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How to Clean a Fish | A Quick Guide

Last Updated: 23.09.23


Cleaning a fish is surprisingly easy, even if it’s not the most glamorous activity in the world. You’ll find more info here about how to do it, regardless if you just caught it yourself or you have bought it from the market.

The Things You’ll Need

Cleaning a fish may be easy, but you’ll still have to prepare yourself for it a little. For this activity which dates back to the dawn of humanity, you’ll need a sharp fillet knife, a butter knife (or any scaling tool), a bucket, a newspaper, a cooler of ice and a platter for clean fish. Gloves aren’t necessary, but you can use them if you want to feel less icky.


Preparing for the Main Event

If there is one thing you have to know when you decide to clean a fish it’s that you have to do it as quickly as possible. In case you are on a fishing trip and still have one more day of fishing, you can keep it in water or ice until you’ll be able to clean all of your captures at the same time.

Cleaning a fish can get a bit messy which is why the best option for doing it is the outdoors. If you are in a state park, surely, a cleaning station may be around you if you just look for it. The other option is to put a newspaper on a table and make sure you have running water somewhere near you since you’ll need it.

You have to rinse the slime off the fish as much as possible because it lowers the risk of accidents – working with a sharp knife and something slippery doesn’t necessarily lead to the best results. After finishing rinsing you can use some paper towels to help it dry faster.


How Do You Scale a Fish?

There’s a very high chance the fish you’ll catch will have scales on them. Naturally, the scales need to go. This is another reason why you should do this task outside – fish scales tend to fly around as soon as you’ve started to peel them like some sort of fireflies, leaving a huge mess. If this is not an option, use a bucket and a deep sink.

So, the first step is to remove the fish from the cool place in which you stored them. Lay it on the surface with the head toward the hand you don’t work with. Grab the head of the fish with said non-dominant hand while using your dominant one to start removing the scales using a butter knife or a scaling tool.

The strokes for this should be quick and short. Repeat the action until the fish has a smooth body. Now turn the fish on the other side and do the same thing. There will be some scales remaining which you can rinse with running water. Just be sure you put it underwater with medium pressure as not to damage the meat.

In case the fish you caught is not abundant in scales (such as a catfish or eels), things are a bit easier, as you can just start cutting along the pectoral fin and then peel off the skin with the help of some pliers.

How Do You Gut a Fish?

The next part is a bit more on the gross side, but since you started the job, you might as well finish it.

Put the fish on one side and use your non-dominant hand to place it flat on top. Now take the fillet knife and insert it into the anus of the fish and make one continuous line all the way to its lower jaw. You need to be careful not to dig too deep as to not touch the intestines. If you do touch them, you’ll know because of the unpleasant smell.

Next, you have to pull the cavity apart and start pulling out the entrails of the fish. In some cases, there may be a need for the knife again in order to manage to detach the base of the head from the gill filaments. We told you it’s not the most glamorous activity in the world!

Take a spoon and start scraping the insides of the fish – remove all organs. The black stomach lining you’ll notice in the cavity should also be removed since it’s far from being delicious.

Using the aforementioned hose, attached to the supply of running water, give the inside of the fish a very good rinse. Keep the water pressure at low or minimum to be sure the meat is not damaged.

Even if a sharp fillet knife might sound dangerous, it’s actually a better alternative to a regular knife. Naturally, you will be tempted to use a bit more force when using a regular knife which may damage the fish. Of course, always make sure the knife doesn’t have a slippery handle.


How Do You Fillet a Fish?

Now that you’re done with the nasty part, you can start thinking about how to cook your fish and you have some options available. After you finished with the gutting and scaling, you can put the fish in the oven or on the grill.

In case you want to roast it or fry it, we recommend you fillet the fish. If you’re already an expert in this, you may not need to gut them in order to fillet them, but if you’re just starting out, it will be better if you gut it first.

Place the fish so that the dorsal fin is facing toward you. Using a sharp fillet knife, start cutting behind the pectoral fin and the gills. Cut all the way down to the spine, but be careful to not sever it.

When you feel like the knife has reached the backbone you can start turning the knife flat and cutting along the backbone. This whole activity has the role of creating a flap that reaches from the head all the way to the tail.

Now lift the flap and don’t stop slicing at the fillet until you have it totally removed. If you’ll stay close to the backbone, you’ll manage to have more meat on the fillet. Cutting through the rib cage is not a problem as you can remove the bones after. Turn the fish on the other side and do the same thing.

Place the fillets on the table with the skin first. Start removing the skin by cutting into the area between the meat and the skin. If you plan to roast the fillet, you can skip this stage and leave the skin there. Again, rinse it with water.

How Do You Steak a Fish?

If your fish is on the larger side (salmon or tuna), you can cut it into steaks. Just like with the classic beef steak, you can just put the meat on the grill for a couple of minutes and it will be done before you know it.

After you scaled and gutted the fish, start making some cuts perpendicular to its spine. This is done from head to tail. Each steak will be around one inch thick. Remove all of the bones and the fat from all of the steaks, but don’t remove the skin or the backbone.

Make sure to clean everything as soon as possible. The inside remains of fish are known to be pretty bad-smelling, which means that after you are done with the gutting and filleting, you should start cleaning the area instantly. If you’re out fishing, you can use them as bait, while, if you’re at home, you can keep the remains in the freezer until you get to throw them out.


Now It’s Your Turn

Knowing how to clean a fish is something which can come in handy when you’re out fishing, camping in a remote location, if you’re living in a rural area or if you like your fish fresh while at home. Of course, if you’re preparing to be a chef, these tricks will also come in handy.

While our manual doesn’t cover all types of fish (we assume not many people reading this are going to hunt sharks), it does cover the vast majority of these animals that you can catch from a river, lake, sea or ocean and so on. And if you do get lucky, now, at least, you know what you have to do to eat it.



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