Fishing

A Complete Guide to Cleaning and Cooking Freshwater Fish

How to prepare a fish

Do you love to eat catch and eat fresh fish, but don’t know how to clean it?

Let’s be honest, cleaning fish is difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing—we’re here to help.

There are as many ways to clean a fish as there are varieties of fish to catch. But one of the most popular methods of fish cleaning is filleting. With the right tools and some practice, anyone can fillet fish with the best.

Keep reading to get a complete guide of how to clean a fish using the fillet method.

Preparations While You Fish

When you fish, you should know going out whether you’ll keep your fish to eat, or catch and release. Your fishing technique is different based on this decision.

If you plan to keep fish, make sure you are aware of the laws and limits before you fish. And always carry your fishing license. It’ll cost you time and money if you get a ticket for being over your limit!

Bring something to hold the fish so that they stay fresh while you’re out fishing. If your boat is equipped with a live well, make sure it has plenty of fresh water circulating.

Keeping your catch fresh

If you don’t have a live well, then you should invest in a floating wire fish basket, or a stringer. Both options allow you to leave the fish in the water until you get to shore. Fish stored in cool water and filleted immediately always tastes better.

Gather Your Tools

The tools depend on what kind of fish you’re cleaning. Some of the most common freshwater fish are bass, walleye, crappy, perch, sunfish or panfish, trout, and catfish.

Each has it’s own unique cleaning characteristics. But for most fish, you’ll need to gather the following:

  • Sharp (must be very sharp!) fillet knife
  • Fillet glove (optional but highly recommended)
  • Knife sharpener
  • Spoon or scaling device
  • Cutting Board
  • Two large bowls
  • Water
  • Large zip-lock bags

Now that you’ve got your supplies together, it’s time to get your hands dirty!

The Filleting Technique

Scaling Your Fish

Scaling doesn’t apply to all fish. Certain bottom-feeding fish, like catfish and bullheads, don’t have scales. You also don’t want to scale larger fish. If your fish is bigger than a salad plate, you can fillet it without scaling it.

Scaling works best when the fish is too small to get a good fillet without leaving the skin on. Sunfish and other panfish are great for this technique. And many people prefer to leave the skin on these smaller fish because it tastes great!

You can scale a fish using a large metal spoon. But they also make fish scalers that work well. If you plan to scale a lot of fish, opt for a scaler to make it easier.

Work with one fish at a time. They will be slippery, so you should wear your fillet glove to help hold on to them. Run your scaler from the base of the tailfin forward toward the gills. This is the opposite direction of how the scales lay.

You might have to use some force to get the scales to come up. Continue along the entire side of the fish until it’s smooth to the touch. Repeat on the other side as well.

Once you’ve scaled the fish, you can place it in a bowl of cool water until you’re ready to fillet it. This is a good way to wash the scales off and keep the fish clean.

Filleting Your Fish

Filleting your fish

If the fish you’re working on has any sort of spines on its back or sides, cut those off first. You don’t want one of those to go through your hand!

Grasp the fish by the head with one hand. Remember, we recommend a fillet glove is because your fillet knife should be very sharp. Always sharpen your knife before you start to get the best results.

Place the knife under the pectoral fin, perpendicular to the backbone of the fish. The blade should point down toward the cutting board. Slice into the fish until you hit the backbone.

Stop at the backbone and turn your knife so that the sharp edge faces the tail. Using back and forth sawing motions, move the knife through the fish. Cut all the way through the tail and stay as close to the backbone as you can.

When you’re done, the fillet should come off in one piece. Now place that piece of fish with the skin side down on the cutting board. Note, if it’s a smaller fillet and you already scaled the skin side, you don’t need to do this next step.

Place your knife onto the fish with the blade pointing sideways. Insert the blade between the flesh and the skin. Hold the fillet down with your free hand, the one with the glove.

Using the same sawing motion, move the knife between the flesh and the skin until you reach the end of the fillet.

That’s it! You’ve filleted your first fish! You should have a nice, long piece of meat with no bones or skin on it, ready to cook and eat.

Storing Your Catch

When you finish filleting each piece of meat, place them into another large bowl with fresh water in it. This keeps them fresh and moist while you work on the rest of your fish.

If you plan to eat them immediately, take the meat out of the water and tap it dry with a towel. Then prepare it according to your favorite fish recipe.

If you don’t want to eat it right away, it will store in the refrigerator for two days at most. Keep it in the bowl with the water and cover until you’re ready to prepare it.

Your final option is to freeze it. For this, you’ll need the large, zip lock plastic bags. Place your fish fillets into the plastic bag, but not all the way to the top. Fill the bag ⅔ full of fish. Then add enough water to cover the fish.

Freeze the bag. It will keep for 6-8 months in your freezer. When you’re ready to cook it, take it out of the freezer and let the bag thaw in the refrigerator.

Learn How to Clean a Fish With Practice

Like any skill, practice makes perfect when it comes to fish cleaning. Remember that you should always clean your fish immediately so they taste better.

And cleaning fish can be dangerous because of sharp spines and sharp knives. Invest in a good, sharp fillet knife and a fillet glove to protect your hands.


Visit our fishing page for all the gear you need to catch, clean, and cook your own fish.

A complete guide to cleaning and cooking freshwater fish

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