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How to Clean a Fish

How to Clean a Fish



Fishing is a great way to explore the outdoors and catch something tasty for dinner. But to cook up a delicious fish dinner, you need to know how to clean and prepare your fresh catch. Learn about the tools you need and the methods to use to prepare your fish for cooking.  

Materials Needed to Clean a Fish

Before starting your fish cleaning process collect all the tools for the job:

  • Spoon, fork, or dull butter knife to remove scales

  • Newspaper and paper towels

  • Sharp knife to gut your fish

  • Fillet knife to prepare fish fillets

  • Wooden spoon or dowel

  • Container to collect fish guts

  • Paper towels

  • Clean running water

  • A container with ice to store your clean fish

  • Ziploc bags for storage

You should also have a nail, hammer, and pliers when cleaning and filleting catfish. 

Set Up Your Prep Area

Cleaning a fish is messy, so it is best to set up your cleaning station outside close to an outdoor faucet. However, you can also prepare your fish indoors next to the sink. 

Before you begin handling the fish, ensure your workstation is clean. Lay out newspaper on the table or countertop to catch the guts and scales. Place a trash bag or bucket next to the table to dispose of  the guts properly. 

Drain the Fish’s Blood

Bleeding your fish gives you cleaner, tastier fillets. It is also a more humane way to kill your catch. 

To bleed the fish, you need to sever the artery that runs between the gills. Make a shallow cut under its gills. Then pass a rope through its mouth and out its gills and hang it over your sink using a wooden spoon or dowel rod. 

Remove the Scales

Use your butter knife, spoon, or fork to remove the scales from the fish. Start from the tail end and work toward the head. Use short raking motions going against the direction of the scales. Rinse off the remaining scales with clean water.

Descaling a Fish

You do not have to remove scales when you clean a catfish. Instead, nail the fish through its head to a tree or piece of wood. Then make incisions just below its head bone on each side of its spine. Use your pliers to grip the skin at the cut and pull down to remove the skin. 

This process will take patience, especially with older catfish. The older the catfish, the tougher the skin and the harder it is to remove the skin. There are other methods for removing catfish skin that are effective if the skin won’t come away with pliers. 

You can fillet a catfish with the skin still on and remove the skin later. Use a sharp knife held at a 45° angle and make a small slit at the tail end of the fillet. Hold the flap of skin created by the slit and slide the knife between the skin and the flesh, making smooth slicing motions. Ensure you keep tension on the skin and lift it away from the fillet as you cut it away. 

Remove the Guts

You will need your sharp knife to remove the fish’s guts. Take the knife and make a shallow cut along the fish’s belly from the tail to the start of the gills. 

Gutting a Fish

When first learning how to gut a fish, many people make this cut too deep. An incision that goes too deep knicks the intestines of the fish, which makes the rest of the cleaning process harder, and potentially contaminates the meat.

Once the guts are exposed, remove them with your fingers or a spoon. Make sure to get everything out that is not meat, including the black stomach lining. Any guts left in with the meat can add an unpleasant aroma and taste to your meal.

Fish Guts - Cleaning a Fish

Rinse the cavity thoroughly with clean water to remove any residual innards and membranes. 

Remove the Head and Fins

If you plan on removing the head, then cut it off from just below the gills. Some fish, like trout, are prepared with the head connected to the fillets. If you are learning how to fillet a trout, keep the head attached to the body but still remove the fins.

Firmly grasp the dorsal fin and swiftly pull it toward the head of the fish to remove it. If done correctly, you’ll remove the fin and a lot of bones from the fish. You can cut the fins off, but that will leave bones in the fish.

Clean Off the Fish Meat

Wash off the fish with fresh water once you are left with just your fish meat, spine, and ribs. 

Fillet Your Fish

To fillet your fish, you will need to use a curved fillet knife. Cut the fish behind the gills to the rib cage. Then turn the fillet knife toward the tail and cut along the top of the ribs with the spine guiding your knife. Repeat this on the other side of the fish. Your goal is to cut the meat and skin off the ribs.

Freshly Caught Filleted Fish

Now you need to cut the fillet away from the skin. Secure the fish by its tail against your working surface. Angle your knife between the meat and skin, then cut with a sawing motion from the tail to the head. You do not want to cut through the skin, instead cut against it to free the fillet.

Wash your fillets with fresh water and pat dry them with paper towels. 

Store Your Fish

Store your fish in a fridge if you plan to cook and eat it within the next two days. For longer storage, place fish fillets in a Ziploc bag, remove all the air, and place them in the freezer. 

For whole cleaned fish, an ice glaze is the best long-term way to store your fish. This method preserves the texture and flavor of the meat. Chill a large dish of water in the freezer until almost frozen. Dip the cleaned fish in the chilled water and place it in the freezer to harden for several minutes. Take the fish out of the freezer and repeat the dipping and freezing steps until it has a uniform layer of ice. Wrap in wax paper and place in a Ziploc bag with the air removed. 

Clean Your Workstation

After mastering how to clean a fish and make fillets, you need to make sure everything is clean. Discard any fish remnants into your trash bag or bucket. Collect the newspaper used as a cleaning surface and throw it away. Sanitize your work area with bleach.


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To make the most of your fishing trip, you need the right gear. Quality apparel and bacon jerky from We The People Holsters can keep you warm, dry, and fed out on the water, so you can concentrate on landing the Big One. Check out the range of apparel and accessories online, and explore our blog series for more hunting and fishing tips.