Updated on May 9, 2022
Many game fish have a similar body shape and bone structure, which has led the fish cleaning process to become fairly standard. While some fish may have a few quirks or differences, the steps are largely the same for everything from black crappie to red snapper. Here’s how to clean your catch from cooler to filets with a few variations for different preparations.
If you’re new to cleaning fish, having the right knife for the job will make the process easier and result in a more appealing final product. Pick a knife that is an appropriate size for the fish you’re cleaning. For panfish, a short, thin blade is totally fine, but a longer and more durable edge is much better suited for larger fish like redfish or amberjack. Keep in mind that thinner blades are more maneuverable, making them better for working around bones, while thicker blades will be better at cutting through bones.
Gutting a fish is fairly simple and only requires a single cut. Slide the tip of your knife into the vent of the fish and slice forward until you reach the gills. Next, you just have to pull out the guts and rinse the abdominal cavity. Now you’re ready for the next step.
Lay the fish flat on your cutting board and use your offhand to securely hold the tail down flat and minimize body movement. Place your knife vertically across the base of the tail, angle the knife at a shallow angle, and slice through the skin and meat. When you feel the knife hit the backbone, turn the knife parallel to the table, and continue to slice forward toward the head of the fish.
As you cut, stay as close to the backbone as possible, keeping the knife barely skimming over the bones. Staying close to the spine will minimize the amount of meat that is left on the carcass and inevitably wasted. Somewhere about midway down the fish, you will run into the ribs. At this point, you can choose to continue flat along the backbone, cutting through the ribs, if you want bone in filets, or work around them for a boneless filet.
To finish cutting out a filet with the rib bones still in, gently make short slices to cut through the ribs while staying flat along the backbone. Continue cutting toward the head until you reach the area just behind the gill plate, then remove the knife. Now, take your knife and cut just behind the gill plate straight down until you reach the long cut you’ve already made. The filet should now be able to be pulled off the fish fairly easily, and you can repeat this process on the other side.
As a side note, you can still remove the ribs from the filet by carefully cutting around them and pulling them off all at once.
Instead of cutting through the ribs, use the tip of the knife to continue cutting along the backbone from the top of the fish down toward the top of the ribcage. Slide the knife toward the head until you reach the gill plate. Now, make a cut behind the gill plate connecting your cuts. At this point, the filet is only being held on by the rib cage, which can be removed by cutting flat along the radius of the ribs. The knife will eventually cut through below the ribs, and your boneless filet will come free. Now you can flip the fish over, and repeat the process on the other side.
To remove the skin, lay the filet skin side down on the cutting board. Make a cut along the back of the skin, starting at the narrow tail section. Next, place your finger between the meat and the skin, pressing firmly down on the skin. Continue to push the knife along the skin, cutting until you cut free on the other side. You now have a finished filet that is ready for any preparation or can be sealed and frozen for later use.
For some fish, cooking the meat with the skin on is preferred, and scaling the fish is fairly easy. To remove the scales from a fish, simply place the meat scales up on the table, and use the back of your knife at a perpendicular angle pushed against the direction of the scales. This should remove them quickly.
Sometimes clean boneless filets are preferred, but in other instances, saving the time and effort is worth it. This method leaves the fish mostly whole, making it great for cooking in the oven or fryer. To start, remove the guts and head of the fish and discard them. Then scale the fish, leaving the fins and everything else intact. This should leave you with a fish carcass that is scaleless and ready to eat if you’re okay with picking bones, which usually can be easily pulled out.