How to Clean, Cut and Prepare the Fish You've Caught

When you have luck and manage to land a catch with your fishing line, the work doesn't end there. After catching your fish, you will also need to clean it and then cut and prepare it for eating. While these processes can be challenging for a beginner, with practice, you'll be scaling and filleting your catch like a pro before frying it up for dinner.

Tools and Equipment for Fish-Cleaning

The second you bring your fish up out of the water, it becomes crucial to care for it correctly to ensure that no one becomes ill from eating it. Anglers often keep fish alive while fishing for as long as possible to avoid the task of keeping dead fish cold on ice. Once fish are dead, it's best to clean them within two hours and eat them within 24 hours. You will need a method of holding your fish until you are ready to clean them. Some anglers use a stringer to keep the fish in the water. Other anglers place fish directly on ice in a cooler. Pliers can help you remove fishing hooks from the fish. Additional tools you will need for fish-cleaning include a scaling tool, fillet knives in an assortment of sizes, and a sharpening steel to keep the knives sharp. You will also need a fillet board that will serve as your work surface for cleaning the fish, gloves to protect your hands, a container to hold clean fish, and a bucket for discarding unwanted fish parts.

Filleting a Fish

Filleting a fish involves cutting away a lengthwise piece of fish on one side that runs parallel to the backbone. First, cut off the fish's head by inserting your knife directly behind the pectoral fin and slicing down and diagonally toward the fish's head until you cut about halfway through the fish. Flip the fish over and repeat the same cut on the other side. Cut off the fish's tail by slicing straight down through the tail. Insert the fillet knife into the fish at the head end of the body just above the backbone and slice horizontally along the fish's body, skimming the knife immediately above the backbone. Trim off the thinner belly area of the fillet to cook it separately (this portion of the fillet will cook more quickly). Place the fillet with the skin facing down onto a work surface. Insert the tip of a chef's knife between the meat and the skin and move the knife firmly along the entire length of the fillet to separate the skin.

Cleaning a Whole Fish

Place the fish on a work surface. Insert the tip of the knife into the fish at the anal orifice and move the knife along the fish's belly up to the gills. Open the fish at the cut and remove all of the organs and intestines to discard them. Look for the fish's kidneys up near the backbone and remove them with a dull knife or spoon. Cut out the fish's anal area with a sharp knife and discard this portion. Rinse the inner cavity of the fish with cool water and scrape out any black tissue that may be present to avoid your fish having an unpleasant taste. Cut off the fish's head with the fillet knife by slicing it off at the pectoral fin.

Scaling a Fish

Some fish, such as bass, require scaling. Scaling a fish involves scraping the scales off of the outer surface of the fish with a scaling tool or a spoon. Place the fish on a firm surface and hold it with one hand. Position the scaling tool or a spoon at the tail of the fish. Press firmly and move the tool or spoon along the surface of the fish to scrape off the scales. Discard the scales you remove and repeat the same process. Work until you have removed all of the scales from the outside surfaces of the fish.

Skinning a Fish

Some fish, such as catfish, require skinning instead of scaling. To skin a fish, place it on a firm work surface and insert a sharp knife at one pectoral fin. Move the tip of the knife over the fish's back and stop at the other pectoral fin. Make two slices down the backbone of the fish on either side of the dorsal fin. Hold the head firmly in one hand and grasp the skin with pliers to pull it away from the fish. Cut off the fish's head and remove the entrails to finish.

Steaking a Fish

Some fish are large and meaty enough to require steaking, which involves cutting the flesh into large, thick steak pieces. After cleaning the fish, place it on ice until the flesh is firm. Place the chilled fish onto a work surface and insert the knife to cut across the backbone. Do not cut out the backbone of the fish. Repeat the same process to make steaks approximately one inch thick.

Warnings and Tips

Fish is very perishable, and it will spoil rapidly if you do not handle it carefully. Bleeding a fish immediately after it dies can improve the meat quality. Place dead fish on a layer of ice in a cooler and cover with additional ice for adequate cooling. Avoid puncturing organs and intestines while cleaning the fish because this can introduce additional bacteria into the fish.