Harvesting your dinner is part of the magic of fishing. Coming home with a cooler full of good old-fashioned free-range trout dinner is about the best thing on earth. Of course, once you get home the job’s still not done. Catching your meal is only half the job. Now you’ve got to process it.
Anybody that has had a successful day on the lake knows how draining it can be to clean 20 fish in a row. It is messy, repetitive work. But it does not have to be. We have had enough practice gutting fish over the years to learn a thing or two. Here is how you can cut down the time it takes you to clean and fillet a fish, a couple of different ways.
What You Need
We all learned as scouts that gutting a fish on a rock with a pocket knife is not exactly easy. If you are using the wrong kind of knife, or the wrong surface, you are going to be wasting energy. And if there is anything we are going for here, it is efficiency. So before we get started, make sure you have:
A Good Fillet Knife
We have covered this topic in-depth already. But the gist is that fillet knives are essential. They utilize long, sharp, flexible blades that are ideal for processing lots of meat at once. The fillet knife is the perfect tool for gutting, boning and scaling fish. If you are doing lots of fish, get one with a rubberized handle for extra grip.
A Cleaning Mat
If you have not noticed already, one of the major themes here is “fish are slimy.” They slide all over, and we are going to make that worse by adding blood and scales to the mix. So having a cleaning mat can be hugely helpful. These mats are great for keeping your catch in one place while you process it. They clean easily and will last your whole lifetime.
A Fishing Cooler
One of the keys is keeping your fish on ice. If you are out on a boat, this is especially easy. Just keep a cooler on board and toss all your “keepers” inside. You can go with a flexible option with carrying straps or your old beater cooler. Whichever is easiest will work just fine. It just needs to hold ice and whatever you take home with you.
We are just going to cover the basics here. That is, how to gut and fillet a fish. If you want to go the extra mile, you can up your preparation game a few different ways. One of these is bleeding your catch by cutting through its main arteries just after it dies. Another is removing the scales to improve the texture of the skin.
These methods will both improve the overall quality of the meat and the presentation of your fish. We’ve covered how to do this in another article, which you can find here. It takes a few extra minutes per fish, but if you fancy yourself a home chef, it will be worth it.
How to Clean A Fish
Regardless of your method, a few things hold. First, make sure your fish gets on ice as soon as it’s dead. This will help keep the meat fresh (meaning not mushy). Second, you want to reduce slippage. Rubberized fillet knives and cleaning mats help a lot with this. Another thing you can do to get a better grip is to use rubber gloves when working. Last, when you position the fish on the mat to fillet it, face the back of the fish toward you. This will give you a better angle for boning the fish.
With that out of the way, let’s get into how to do it.
Method 1 (The Traditional Method)
Pros: The traditional method produces more meat and fewer “leftovers.” This is a bonus if you hate wasting any bit of what you catch. If you prefer to leave the belly fat of the fish on, that’s also a win. The traditional method is also cleaner overall as the guts have less time in contact with the meat.
Cons: More knife work is required. It can take more practice to do correctly as well. More than anything, this method is the slower of the two. The traditional method takes a couple of minutes, whereas the gutless method is lightning fast.
To begin, we need to gut our fish. We’ll do this by pressing down with an open hand on the fish’s side. Insert your knife just above the anal fin and cut upward until you sever the bone just behind the place where the gill plates meet. Now you can just grab the guts and pull them free. Your fillet knife will help you remove anything that doesn’t want to pull away. Rinse the body cavity, and you’re done with the gross stuff.
Now we’re going to lay the fish upright with the sides butterflied out. Remove the dorsal fin by cutting down from either side at an angle. You should be able to pull it free once the bone is disconnected. Next, remove the pectoral fins. Make diagonal cuts going away from the spine just behind the fins.
Then we need to start boning. Flip the fish onto its back and let the sides lay open. Make sure you have a good grip as this part can be tricky. Starting at the head and moving backward, cut along the base of the ribs (where they meet the spine). When you get to the pectoral fin, cut around it on either side and continue down to the tail, separating all the meat from the spine. Then you can cut through the spine just above the tail, and under the spine to remove it completely.
The next step is to get the ribs out. This part takes the most finesse and practice. Just remember to cut away from you, beginning at the head and moving down. We are going to carefully cut under the ribs and slide the knife along, separating them from the meat and pulling them free.
At this point, we are done! However, if you want, you can remove the head and tail and separate the sides for easier packing, or leave them on; this is optional. Some prefer to leave the body of the fish as intact as possible. It is just a matter of preference.
Method 2 (The Gutless Method)
Pros: The gutless method is faster. Like, way, way faster. The traditional method may take two minutes, but the gutless method can be over and done within thirty seconds if you’re good at it. If you have got a ton of volume to process in a day, there is a lot to be said for only making four cuts per fish instead of eight. That means less knife work and less fatigue. The other perk is that you don’t have to handle the fish’s guts if you do not want to. The gutless method also produces leaner, less fatty fillets by leaving the belly fat behind.
Cons: You will produce more waste and get less weight in meat out of your fillets. If you are cleaning huge largemouths or salmon, then who cares? But if your catches are smaller and you want to get everything you can off the bones, this is a downside.
If you got tired just reading how to do the “traditional method,” do not worry, this will be much easier. Our goal here is to get each fish filleted in just four cuts. It takes some precision to do this correctly. The main thing you will need to learn is how to feel where your knife is as you are cutting. It is a touch-sensitive process, but not too hard to learn.
To begin, lay the fish with the spine toward you. Your first cut will be behind the pectoral fin, angling the knife diagonally toward the belly. Cut down until you just touch the spine. Now slip the knife in sideways so that it is parallel to the spine and cut the meat away from the ribs. Always work from the head to the tail. When you reach the end of the fish, press down on the fillet for better grip and simply cut the fillet free. Now repeat on the other side.
And that is it! You can toss what you have leftover. Start to finish, this takes no more than a minute and what you are left with are two beautiful fillets and the rest of the fish. Easy peasy, living breezy.
Conrad Lucas is a biologist, naturalist, and writer from Salt Lake City, UT. He specializes in bat ecology, and loves skiing, caving, canyoneering, climbing and fishing. You can follow him on IG @drinkfluoride and find his creative work at www.jconradlucas.com