Catch of the Day: How to Clean and Cut Your Catches

Cleaning your fresh-caught fish for a tasty dinner can be a seemingly complicated task. But the steps in this guide should make your first clean a breeze!

A fish fillet lies on a cutting board with some herbs.

Photo by Joseph Smith

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You’ve been fishing and had good luck. What should you do with your catch? Nothing tastes better than fresh-caught fish! There are plenty of recipes on how to cook your fish, but the secret to delicious results starts from the moment it’s caught.

Proper care and cleaning set the stage to ensure it tastes great. So before you break out the Dutch oven over the campfire, let’s go over some basics so your catch of the day will be a success.

Caveats

I don’t advocate keeping everything you catch. Catch and release is an important conservation practice to maintain healthy fish populations for anglers to enjoy for years to come. I’m talking about harvesting enough fish—within the legal limits—to make a meal.

Only take the number of fish you need, knowing that it might be less than the legal limit. Conservation-minded anglers take only what they intend to use and avoid unnecessary waste. Consider that some fishing waters are unfortunately contaminated with heavy metals and other chemicals that end up in the food chain and bioaccumulate, particularly in larger fish.

This means ingesting large amounts of fish from polluted water is unhealthy to eat. Fish consumption warnings are usually posted when it’s the case. If in doubt, check the water conditions with local authorities, preferably prior to harvesting the fish.

Another legal issue to keep in mind is fish size limits. To avoid any problems, keep the heads on in case you are checked. Likewise, be cognizant of laws pertaining to the disposal of fish waste. It is often illegal to dump fish entrails into the water from which it came to prevent disease and keep the waterways clean.

Pro Tip No. 1

The way a fish is handled immediately after catching it influences how it tastes later.

The first 20 minutes after catching a fish are the most crucial. Bacteria, your enemy, reproduces quickly and exponentially. Remember, you can only keep fish in good condition; you can’t make a bad fish good. In an ideal world, keep your caught fish in a cooler on top of ice. If you can’t, place them on a stringer in cold water. Don’t throw them on the bank or a hot boat deck.

Fish should be cleaned the same day. Never freeze an uncleaned fish and expect to do it properly right before cooking. It won’t taste good. Also, once a fish is cleaned, store it in a sealed container on ice until cooked. Avoid slushy water that puts moisture in contact with the exposed meat. It’s the perfect milieu for bacteria, turning your fish bad.

Cleaning a Fish

Three photos of a fish being cut up with a knife.

Photos by Joseph Smith

There are multiple ways to clean a fish. Many of them depend on the fish species. The following is how I prepare trout. I prefer this method, with the head attached as it leaves cooking options. And with the jaw intact, you have a point of attachment to a stringer if needed for ease of transportation. If you are still near your favorite fishing spot, this also eliminates any length limit issues if questioned.

  • Secure the fish and hold it belly up. On the underside of the jaw, there are two lateral membrane areas. Make a cut into both, one at a time.
  • Now pass the blade of your knife across to join the cuts before cutting upward, essentially freeing the tongue and floor of the mouth from the rest of the fish’s mouth,
  • Slide your knife under the pectoral fin at a 60-degree angle, making a horizontal incision toward the gills. Repeat on the other side. Many people skip this step, but it makes the rest of the process easier. It’s a precise technique with controlled cuts to ensure all the gills and entrails are removed.
  • Insert the point of your knife in the anal slit of the fish and cut toward the head to meet your other cuts, just inferior to the gills. No need to go deep, just enough to cut the skin. Try not to pierce the alimentary tract of the fish as this releases bacteria.
  • Insert a finger into the floor of the mouth opening you made and hold the fish’s jaw and head with the other hand.
  • Pull down. Exert some force. If done correctly, it removes the fish’s gills and alimentary tract as one complete unit.
  • Take your thumbnail and work inferiorly to superiorly to remove the remaining black line (kidney). Rinse in clean water.
  • Rinse the fish and dry. It’s ready to be cooked in a frying pan or aluminum foil pack.

Pro Tip No. 2

Keep your workspace clean and use a sharp knife.

Butterflying the Fish

Three photos of a fish on a cutting board being chopped up by a knife.

Photos by Joseph Smith

The next step will impress your guests. It removes most of the bones so you can stuff the fish if you desire. It does make for a great presentation on the plate!

  • Take your cleaned trout and extend your inferior cut to around the anal fin. Pass the knife deeply at this point. Feel for the spine and follow along as you make your cuts.
  • Gently remove the anal fin and its accompanying bones.
  • Working inferiorly to superiorly, slide the tip of your blade in between the ribs and cut them free from the surrounding meat. You’ll feel your knife slide along the bones if done correctly. Follow the ribs deeper to their insertion into the spine and cut along it on both sides. Don’t go through the skin to the dorsal side. As you approach the head, you may encounter pin bones you have to cut through.
  • Once both rib cages have been freed of the underlying meat, separate the spine from the meat. When done, the spine and ribs should be free floating from the rest of the fish.
  • Cut the spine near the tail and head. Discard the spine and ribs. If you like, you can also remove the head at this point. If done properly, the bulk of the bones (minus some pin bones) should be free from the fish and it should lie flat. Now stuff the fish or fry it in a pan.

Pro Tip No. 3

Use a sharp filet knife made for this purpose. Its flexible blade makes it easier to remove the bones and preserve the meat.

Cut the Fish Into Steaks

In the event of a bigger fish, such as a salmon, cutting it into steaks is a good option.

  • Start with a cleaned fish (see above)
  • Remove the dorsal fin and any large scales from the fish.
  • Make your first cut directly behind the pectoral fin and remove the head, cutting through the spine.
  • Move down an inch or two, depending on how thick you want the steaks, and continue making cuts until you reach the tail.
  • Once the steaks are too small, stop the process and either fillet the rest of the meat off the tail or use it for a fish soup.
  • Fire up the grill and start cooking your steaks.

Pro Tip No. 4

Always use a sharp knife to scale a fish, sliding the blade between the scales and skin. Work from the tail to the head, against the direction of the scales.

Pro Tip No. 5

A sharp cleaver or large chef’s knife makes it easier to steak a fish. Kitchen shears are great for removing the dorsal fin.

Fileting a Fish

This is by far the way most fish are cleaned. If done correctly, you are left with two boneless slabs of meat, ready for cooking. Although you can start with a cleaned fish, this isn’t an obligation, as removing the fillets will leave the alimentary tract behind with the bones.

  • Lay the fish down on the cutting board.
  • Make your cut just behind the pectoral fin and carry it down to the spine.
  • Angle your knife 90 degrees and make a cut from head to tail, removing the meat from the fish’s body. The tip of the knife should be visible along the fish’s dorsal side, staying on the cutting side of the dorsal fin. Feel the knife glide along the spine as you cut.
  • When you get to the tail, you have an option. Some prefer to keep the skin on their filets for presentation. If this is you, come up with the cut and completely remove the meat from the fish. If you like skinless filets, don’t complete the cut through the skin.
  • Flip the filet still attached to the skin near the tail over. Now, place your knife parallel, just between the filet and skin.
  • Holding your knife still, pull the fish away from your knife hand. Let the knife do the work, removing the filet from the skin. Once completed, you should have a nice filet of meat and the skin should still be attached to the fish carcass near the tail.
  • Take the filet and trim off the ribs and belly meat. If working with an oily fish, consider removing the dark lateral line. It sounds wasteful, but this meat rarely tastes good and is the tissue where the bulk of any heavy metal contaminants are stored in the fish. If done properly, your filet should now be boneless.
  • Turn the fish over and repeat for the other side.
  • Make some beer batter and get the fryer hot and ready.

Pro Tip No. 6

A sharp, flexible filet knife is the best tool for this job.

Pro Tip No. 7

If you plan on keeping the skins on the filets, descale the fish first. Once you’ve done the above, the fish can be cooked immediately or frozen in an airtight container for later. This isn’t a comprehensive list of ways to handle fish, rather, a primer for anglers new to the sport to enjoy their catches and avoid well-intentioned harvests going to waste.

Final Thoughts

A fish sits in a pan with herbs and lemon.

Photo by Joseph Smith

There are plenty of good fish recipes on the web, many of which can be done over a campfire. For more ideas on how to cook your cleaned and deboned fish, check out this article by a fellow Curated Expert. And if you find yourself in need of any fishing gear to help land your fresh catch, reach out to a Fishing Expert here on Curated and we'd be happy to help!

Remember, there is something special about sharing your fresh catch with friends and family. Tight Lines and Bon appétit!

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Written By
I am an avid fly fisherman. Luckily, I have a pond in my backyard exactly two minutes from my fly tying bench. If there is open water, I will fish just about every day. Although I grew up fishing the fabled streams of Pennsylvania, I love to travel and fly fish for diverse species both fresh and sa...

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