Ah, the age old process that follows ANY successful fishing outing - cleaning the fish. We know you’re most likely drained from being in a boat or scrambling around a bank, but this is one task you’ll want to address in short order. Fish will keep in cool water or on ice for a time, but are best processed while they are still fresh. So snap to it before you sit down.
There are a few different approaches you can take, depending on the type of fish you are cleaning. You can simply gut and scale them if you’re cooking them whole, or you can fillet them with or without the skin on.
THE WHOLE APPROACH
Scale the Fish
Always work with one fish at a time. Hold the head with one hand and, using a scaling tool, dull knife or spoon, apply short, raking motions, moving from the tail toward the head. Use caution around the sharp edges of the fins. Repeat the action on both sides of the fish, around the fins and up to the gills. Rinse the fish in water when you've finished.
Skin the Fish
Bullheads, catfish and other bottom-feeders lack scales, but are protected by a thick skin, which most people prefer to remove before cooking. First, cut the sharp spines off, which makes handling the fish easier.
Once you've removed the spines, make a cut behind the head and along the pectoral or belly fins. Hold the fish by the head with one hand, grasp the skin with the other, and pull toward the tail. You may want to secure the head with a clamp or nail and use a pliers to grab the skin. It’s almost like peeling a banana when it goes well. Rinse the fish when it's completely skinned.
Cleaning and Gutting Your Fish
On the belly of the fish, insert the knife into the anus, near the tail. Slowly slide the knife toward the head of the fish and stop at the base of the gills. Open the abdominal cavity, grab the entrails, pull, and remove. Some fish have a kidney located by the spine, which you can remove with a spoon.
Always remove the darkened inner membrane (only some fish have this) with a scraping motion—the membrane negatively affects the flavor. Remove the head, if desired, by cutting behind the gills. Rinse the fish and the internal cavity.
Use the fillet method to negate the need for scaling or skinning. You can pretty much forego the gutting process as well, as there really is no need to open up the gut cavity. If you choose to leave the skin on you’ll obviously still need to scale the fish.
Lay the fish on its side and hold the head. Insert the fillet knife behind the pectoral fin and cut downward to, but not through, the backbone. Turn the knife flat with the sharp edge pointed toward the tail and use a sawing motion to slowly work down toward the tail; stay as close as possible to the backbone. You’ll want to follow the ribs as closely as possible without puncturing the rib cavity.
Once you've cut through to the tail, turn the scale side down on the table. Insert the knife between the flesh and the skin and use the same sawing motion to remove the meat. Be careful to guide the knife around the contour of the ribs, taking as much flesh as possible.
Once the fillet is loose, flip it over with the skin side down and do your best to hold the tail side down while inserting the knife blade between the skin and flesh. This can be tricky, but after a few you’ll get the hang of it. Carefully work the blade with the sawing motion down the length of the fillet until the skin is removed. Repeat the process on the other side of the fish and rinse in cold water when you're finished.
You can also place them in a container of water until you’re finished, then give them a final rinse before cooking or freezing them. Freezing them in a bit of water is the best way to keep the fillets fresh and avoid freezer burn. They can be kept for months as fish are happier in water - whether they’re still swimming or processed.
One important note - if you are traveling with cleaned fish, (by car and especially by air), there may be a requirement to leave a small tag of skin on your fillets to confirm the species. Be sure to check local regulations, as the last thing you want is to have your fish taken from you on a technicality.
Use steaking as an alternative to filleting when you prepare salmon or any large fish. After gutting and scaling, cut perpendicular to the backbone along the entire fish. These steaks should generally be 1/2- to 1-inch thick. The more uniform the thickness, the more even the cooking. Don't forget to trim any excess fat or bones without removing the backbone.
You can either remove the skin or leave the skin on. Fish steaks are absolutely perfect for the grill. Brushing them with oil will keep them from drying out while cooking.
USE THE RIGHT TOOL
So no matter the technique you’re using, the best overall tip is to use a knife with a sharp, thin blade. Fillet knives are designed for this, with a narrow tapered blade. Electric knives are also worth considering if you tend to put a lot of fish on the table. It will make the whole process much easier and more enjoyable.There is nothing quite like the taste of a fish that you’ve caught and processed yourself. It’s the final step in making memories and enjoying the water, so fish on! -WR