How to Clean and Prep a Fish to Debone and Fillet

Cleaning and Prepping a Fish to Debone and Fillet Unlike other forms of food, fish has always needed multiple steps with regards to preparation and proper eating. No matter the type of fishing rod or color of fishing line you’re using or the type of fishing you’re doing (anywhere from ice fishing to fly fishing), all fish need to be prepared the same way. This is a big difference from a lot of other food types that can simply be washed, cut to smaller pieces and cooked right away or mixed in soups. The process of fishing, scaling, gutting, cutting, cleaning and filleting represent a combined process learned over history on how to eat fish properly versus getting sick. Fortunately, preparing fish is actually very simple and easy to learn as well.

Materials Needed

Before getting started, folks will need some specific materials and tools for fish treatment. Those include:

  • A fillet knife
  • Fish scaling tool
  • A bucket or cleaning sink drain for remains
  • A filled ice box for the cut fish parts to store until put in a fridge or cooked
  • A plate for placement of cleaned fish until ready for storage or use
  • Gloves if you don’t want your hands messy
  • Newspaper as a work surface, which absorbs liquids really quickly and gets them out of your way

Initial Steps and Prepwork

The first priority is to clean a fish as soon as possible after capture and removal from the water. A fish’s body begins to die as soon as the fish is removed by the water. If you can’t clean it right away, put the fish on ice ASAP until then.

Second, try to do the cleaning outside if you’re not in a full kitchen. The fish-cleaning process can be fairly involved, messy and has a lot of splatter, which makes it really hard to clean in a tent or camper. Avoid the problem entirely by cleaning away from where you eat and sleep and in the outdoors. Wash everything down afterwards. Also, make sure not to clean where you tent because a lot of wild animals will smell the remains and come looking for food. You don’t need a big, furry surprise shuffling your tent for fish guts.

Always keep all fishing equipment like your different fishing tackles stored in your tackle box clean, including your fishing pliers and your braided fishing line. Mixing guts causes cross-contamination and makes it hard to hold the knife safely. Prep the fish by washing it down first and then dry it a bit with a paper towel before working.

Actual Fish Treatment and Knifework

Next, scaling the fish is a must. Work over a bucket or sink and wash as you de-scale. This makes everything go away from your workspace instead of into it. Use a scaling tool and hold the fish by the head with your non-working hand. Short swipes are the best approach, not long strokes. Scale one side at a time. Wash the fish to remove the remainder of scales before going to the next stage.

Gutting the fish opens up the real messy part. Insert the cutting knife into the fish while securing it with your non-cutting hand. Insert at the rear end and cut through to the lower jaw. Watch out for the intestines and try not to puncture them or it will be a big stink. Open the fish and pull out the intestines. A spoon helps remove bigger organs like the liver. When cleaned out, wash the inside of the fish and outside again with water.

Reaching the fillet stage, the first step is to get under the gill with a fillet knife and remove the fish head. Once done, place the fish body with the belly pointing away from you, and insert the fillet knife along the backbone. Slice the fish from base to tail in a lateral cut, splitting the body in two along the backbone. You will slice through the rib bones, which are removed later. With the fish in two, it’s time to cut out the backbone. Then, remove the rib and pin bones out of each side. Pressing on the flesh can make the bone poke out, making it easier to remove.

The final stage is to hold the tail and slice between it and the fillet to separate the final meat from the tail and skin of the side. You should now have a very tasty, thick fish fillet to throw on the grill or pan for a great dinner at your camp.