Gone Outdoors

How to Clean a Fish

by Jodi Thornton O'Connell

Don't let the excitement of landing a fine fish turn to frustration simply because no one else in your party wants to clean it. While gutting and cleaning a fish can be a bit on the slippery and slimy side, with a little practice, you'll have your fish ready to put on the grill within a few minutes. Clean your fish as soon as practicable after catching it to ensure the freshest, best-tasting meal.

Clean the Outside

Begin by rinsing the slippery coating off your fish under running water, rubbing your catch with a gloved hand. Lay your fish on newspapers or heavy paper bags that will absorb juices. If the fish has scales, run the blade of your knife from tail to head as if peeling a potato to loosen and remove scales. Repeat until the fish is smooth and scale-free. Rinse under water to wash away any loose scales clinging to the fish. If cleaning a catfish, bull-head or other fish that has thick skin instead of scales, you may remove the skin instead, if you wish. Just slice through it at the base of the head, pulling it off toward the tail of the fish. Be sure to cut off the sharp spines of a catfish first, to avoid injury.

Going In

Insert the point of a sharp knife into the anal opening on the fish's belly near the tail. Cut toward the fish's head, stopping at the gills. Insert your knife through the gills where they join near the fish's jawline. Sever the membrane holding the gills to the jaw. Spread the fish's belly open. Take hold of the fish's jaw with one hand. With the other hand, grasp the gills and pull out the entrails from head to anus. Remove kidneys along the spine and any dark-colored membranes with a spoon or gut scraping tool. Rinse the inside cavity well with fresh water.

Heads and Tails

Small fish such as trout are sometimes cooked whole with head, fins and tails attached. If you plan to keep your fish in the refrigerator for a few days before cooking, the head is also a good indicator of freshness. A head with clear eyes and brightly colored gill openings are still fresh, but as the eyes start to cloud and the color fades, your fish is losing its freshness. If you want to remove the head, cut it off just below the gill openings. Remove the dorsal fin on the fish's back by making a cut along each side of it and pulling the fin out, starting with the end nearest the tail. You can remove the other fins in the same manner, and finish by chopping off the tail.

Making Fillets

You may prefer to fillet your fish, avoiding the necessity of cleaning out the body cavity. With the fish lying on its side, insert the fillet knife just behind pectoral fin and cut down to the backbone. Turn the knife sideways once you reach the backbone and cut along the spine to the tail. When you reach the tail, fold the fillet over so it lies scale side down on the newspaper. Remove the rib cage from the meat, then remove the skin with your knife, if you wish. Repeat the process on the other side of the fish. When you've finished cleaning your fish, rinse and store in an airtight container. Roll the guts up in the newspaper, tie up in a plastic bag and dispose in the garbage.

About the Author

A former world-class swimmer, J.T. O'Connell shares her love of adventure travel, extreme sports and pets through thousands of published articles. O'Connell studied journalism at Grand Canyon University, and brings professional experience as a tour guide and travel consultant. She authors the blog, Traveling With Large Dogs.

Photo Credits

  • SUSANSAM/iStock/Getty Images