A Guide To Filleting Fish

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If you enjoy the sport of fishing and want to start supplying some of your own fresh food for dinner, then fish can be a great option. To prepare your fish for eating, use this guide to filleting fish to ensure it’s properly gutted and de-boned.

Cleaning The Fish

Cleaning a fish is a multi-part process that involves rinsing, gutting, scaling (or skinning) and filleting. This isn't the most pleasant part of fish prep, but the good news is that it can be relatively fast and easy. You may also want to remove the blood from a fish. To do this, insert a knife into the gill plate, severing the gill cluster. Drain the blood and proceed to the steps below or store the fish on ice. For bleeding to work, the fish should be alive. The process is very quick, though.

Gutting & Scaling The Fish

How to gut a fish:

  • Locate the anal fins toward the back of the fish's belly.
  • Grasp the fish, and insert the knife before the anal fin, making a straight cut to the gills. This will expose the internal cavity and reveal the gill area. Always position the fish so you're cutting away from yourself.
  • Remove the internal organs by grasping them where they connect near the base of the head. On a smaller fish, you can just pinch the connective tissues and pull. On a large fish, you'll have to use a knife to cut away the connective tissues holding the internal organs in place.
  • Pull or cut out the gills, or remove the head from the fish. The process will vary based on personal preference and the type of fish involved.
  • Wash the cavity thoroughly, and rinse the fish. Make sure all viscera and blood is removed. This may require the use of a soft bristle brush.

To scale a fish:

If you plan on removing the skin, scaling is seldom necessary. If you do want to retain the skin:

  • Choose an outdoor location for this activity.
  • Following the line of the body, use a scaling knife or blunt knife (a butter knife works for this) to scrape the scales off.
  • Start at the tail and work up toward the head.
  • Pay particular attention to the curved and narrow areas of the body like the head, collar, fins and tail.

It's easy to miss a spot. You may not notice now, but you will when you try to eat the fish, so take your time and do a thorough job of scaling. You'll be glad you did.

Skinning The Fish

This may seem counter intuitive, but the fastest way to skin a fish is to work from the flesh side:

  • Cut through the fillet using a long bladed, flexible knife angled almost flat.
  • Find the spot where the fish's flesh and skin meet. Scrape gently but firmly from the tail to the front (or head if it's still attached).
  • As skin comes away from the flesh, grasp it and pull, or use it to anchor the fish as you loosen and remove the remaining skin with a knife.

If you adjust the knife blade slightly as you go, you shouldn't lose much flesh in the process.

Filleting Fish

To fillet a fish:

  • Make a deep angled cut to the bone just below the gill, and follow it along the body just in front of the dorsal fin, rotating the fish as you work.
  • Feel your way, letting the backbone be your guide.
  • Keep cutting at that depth, removing the sinews and small bones. Don't remove the fillet yet.
  • Turn the fish over and repeat the process on the opposite side. Leaving the first partial cut intact will make this step easier.
  • Completely remove the fillet from the second side and then turn the fish back over. Finish up by releasing the fillet from the original side.

Fish Cleaning Tools

These tools will make it easier to prep your catch:

  • Ice - Fish chilled immediately will stay fresh longer and be easier to fillet.
  • Fillet knife - Prefer a sharp, flexible knife between six and seven inches long. There are specialty fish cleaning knives on the market that work very well. The length and width of the perfect fillet knife is often a matter of personal preference.
  • Scaling knife - Although you can find specialty knives designed specifically for scaling that have a serrated edge, almost any serrated or blunt edged knife will due. In a pinch, you can even use the back (blunt side) of a fillet knife.
  • Skinning pliers - The skin on some fish lifts off easily once loosened. Skinning pliers are used to grasp and pull the skin from catfish (and other fish varieties) in one even sheet.
Last Updated: September 9, 2012
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About Sara Elliot Sara Elliott is a freelance copywriter and dedicated blogger. Her popular gardening, cooking and crafting blog, The Herb Gardener, was cited by The Wall Street Journal for its fun and frugal tips. Sara has a degree in English, and you can find her health, crafting, and lifestyle pieces on sites like DiscoveryHealth.com, HowStuffWorks.com, Savvi.com and TLC.com.

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