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How to Gut a Fish Step by Step

How to Gut and Clean a Fish

If you're a fish lover, there is nothing like the taste of freshly caught fish when it is properly cleaned and prepared.

Eating fish that are not properly cared for can cause serious illness or even death.

Not only does improper care of the fish pose serious health risks, it can also cause the fish to taste poorly and make it spoil sooner.

It is vital that cleanliness be observed at all times when handling any type of meat. Fish should be prepared and stored properly. Hands and fingernails should be washed prior to cleaning the fish. Fish should be cleaned on a clean surface.

Any equipment used to clean the fish should be sanitized prior to their use. Avoid contamination by protecting your fish and equipment from flies and other pests.

  • Fillet Knife or Kitchen Shears: The most important tool for cleaning your fish is a good sharp fillet knife or kitchen shears. Dull cutting tools can be difficult to use and pose a safety hazard.
  • Cut-Resistant Glove: A specialized glove to help protect from cuts made from sharp objects can really come in handy when trying to cut slippery fish.
  • Fillet Board: A fillet board can give you a clean cutting surface to work on. Some have clamps to hold the fish while you work.
  • Fish Cleaning System or Table: If your spouse would prefer (or demands) that you clean your fish outside, there are some great commercially made cleaning tables available to help you perform the task while making cleanup easier.
  • Fish Scaler: You can use your fillet knife, a butter knife, or spoon to scale your fish but for faster and easier results, commercial scalers are available.

Preparing to Clean Your Fish

The first thing to consider when cleaning your fish is where to clean it. In many states, it is legal to clean your fish at the lake or stream where you caught it. In other states, this is strictly forbidden. Before cleaning your fish at the lake or stream, get to know your local laws.

If you have to take your fish home to clean them you will probably want to do it outside. Cleaning your fish, especially scaling it, can be a messy process.

It's a good idea to do your fish cleaning in a location where you have access to water for rinsing and cleaning your fish and equipment.

A commercially available or homemade fish cleaning station is ideal for cleaning your fish. Be sure to sanitize it before and after cleaning your fish.

Once you have established a location to clean your fish, you should sanitize the tools you will be using.

Removing the Scales from Your Fish

If you plan to skin your fish, you will not need to scale it.

Removing the scales will help remove bacteria from the surface of the fish. This will not only be more sanitary but it will also help the meat last longer in the refrigerator or freezer.

Removing the scales will also provide an improved dining experience. If you do choose to leave the scales on, you will want to remove the entire skin from the fish before eating.

This important task is one of the messiest parts of cleaning and preparing a fish. You will probably want to do it outside because the scales will go everywhere.

If you are using a fillet knife to remove the scales, take the knife and work it at an angle against the grain of the fish scales. Do this in sections starting from the tail and working your way up to the head.

Make sure to get all the scales. The scales near the head and fins will be the most difficult to remove. The technique is similar if you use a spoon or butter knife.

If you use a commercial scaler, follow the manufacturer's recommendations.

Rinse the fish thoroughly after scaling it.

Tip: A plastic mesh-type pot scrubber works well when scaling a trout. Make sure to only use a new one with no detergents or cleaners.

Preparing to gut the fish:  Making the first cut

Preparing to gut the fish: Making the first cut

Gutting a Trout

After you have scaled your fish, you will probably want to gut it. There are, however, some fish species that you may wish to forgo gutting and just fillet the meat off the fish. This works well when cleaning channel catfish.

To gut your fish, slip the tip of the knife into the vent at the bottom of the fish. Slide the knife upward toward the head.

Keep the knife just under the skin, cutting too deep will cut into organs spilling blood, or the contents of the gall bladder, stomach and intestines.

Continue cutting until you reach the boney location just near the base of the gills. Now take the knife and cut slits just behind the lower jaw of the fish. This will leave a "V" shape that you can put your finger into and pull. When you pull, the gills and entrails should all come out at one time.

After removing the guts, there will be a line of what looks like red blood at the top of the cavity. Take your finger and squeeze out any blood that is there.

If you don't like to have the fish look at you when you eat it, you can also remove the head at this time. To remove the head, bend it backwards until the neck bone breaks and then cut through the flesh that is left with the fillet knife. Be sure to leave the head on if you intend to skin your fish.

When you are finished gutting your fish, rinse it thoroughly inside and out. Be sure to do an extra good job rinsing your fish because this may be the last time you will rinse it before eating or storing it.

Cutting up to the hard point just below the gills

Cutting up to the hard point just below the gills

Making the "v" shaped cut just behind the lower jaw

Making the "v" shaped cut just behind the lower jaw

Cleaning the bloody "vein" at the top of the cavity by pushing it out with your thumb

Cleaning the bloody "vein" at the top of the cavity by pushing it out with your thumb

Skinning the fish

Skinning the fish

Removing the Skin (Optional)

It's quite easy to remove the skin from some types of fish while cleaning. Trout are one of the fish that is very easy to skin.

Sometimes it's easier to cut out the fins from the fish prior to skinning. If you want to first cut fairly deeply around each fin to remove each one. Leave the tail on.

Now you're ready to skin your fish. Bend the head back until the neck breaks and most of the flesh breaks away from the head.

Pull the head down past the body. If done correctly, the skin will separate from the flesh of the fish until it reaches the tail. It may help to separate the skin from the flesh with your finger or thumb as you are pulling downward. Pull or cut away the skin from the tail.

Storing Your Cleaned Fish

Make sure your fish is well dried before wrapping and placing in the refrigerator or freezer. Excess water can damage the flesh of the fish. Leaving air in storage bags can also damage the flesh because the moisture that is in the air can freeze on the fish causing freezer burn.

For best results, eat or prepare your fish for storage as soon as possible.

Preparing fish for cooking

Preparing fish for cooking

Cooking Your Fish

Cooking fish can be one of the easiest main dishes you can prepare. If your spouse doesn't like you to cook the fish indoors due to the odor, you may wish to cook it outside on a gas grill or barbecue.

Cooking fish is so easy it can be done anywhere, at home, on the barbecue or while camping.

  1. Cut a piece of aluminum foil large enough to wrap your fish.
  2. Place the fish in the middle of the aluminum foil.
  3. Place butter or margarine inside the cavity of the fish.
  4. Place a few small pieces of butter or margarine on the outside of the fish.
  5. Salt and pepper as desired.
  6. You may also place dill weed or your favorite spices inside the cavity of your fish if you like.
  7. Wrap the fish up in the aluminum foil.
  8. Place the wrapped fish on a cookie sheet and place in preheated oven at 425 deg. Fahrenheit. If you're cooking the fish in a campfire, simply place the wrapped fish in the hot coals. Make sure you place it in a position that you can get to when the fish is done.
  9. Allow the fish to cook. Cooking time should only a few minutes depending on the size of the fish. After 10-15 minutes, take out your fish and check to see if it is done by taking a fork and pulling apart the meat from the thickest area. The cooked fish should be lighter in color and be nice and flaky. Be careful not to overcook your fish as it will become mushy.
  10. If your fish is fully cooked, you can place it on a plate, squeeze a wedge of lemon on the fish if desired and eat it right out of the aluminum foil.
Fish ready for the oven, grill or hot coals of a fire

Fish ready for the oven, grill or hot coals of a fire

© 2012 Marty Andersen


Isaac from Orange County, California on August 20, 2014:

Nice technique and a well written article. I love trout fishing, but it's difficult to do in the city. Thanks for also including the panfish video. We catch tons of panfish in our city lakes.

Gail Meyers from Johnson County, Kansas on January 02, 2013:

I have not cleaned a fish since I was a child, but I do know how to clean a fish if I had to. I have been so disgusted seeing one person after another serve fish with the head, eyes, etc., attached.

Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on December 28, 2012:

Excellent, educational hub. Yes, one must clean fish thoroughly. In fact, one must clean all meats thoroughly in order to prevent sickness. Voted this hub WAY up!

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on December 28, 2012:

I agree, a properly cleaned fish is safer to eat. Congratulations on the Hub Of the Day.

kingsingh from Maryland on December 28, 2012:

I really enjoyed the video and I almost watched all 17 minutes...very interesting article and congrats on being the Hub of the Day. Well deserved.

Marty Andersen (author) from Salina, Utah on December 28, 2012:

Skinning takes a little practice but it's well worth it. If you have trouble, try sliding your finger or thumb between the flesh and the skin to help you in the hard spots.

Robb Hoff from Cincinnati, Ohio on December 28, 2012:

Nice pair of ..... videos! I've always cut into the backbone behind the trout head after slicing up the middle and just cracked the head down, pulling the guts out with the head attached. But you've got me thinking I'll try gutting with the V-cut to leave the head on, so I can pull the skin off with the head all at once instead.

whonunuwho from United States on December 28, 2012:

Nice hub, flash, and well appreciated by an old fisherman and fish cleaner. whonu

Marty Andersen (author) from Salina, Utah on December 28, 2012:

I was fortunate that my dad taught me after catching my first trout when I was a very small child. I can't remember not knowing how.

Lesleysherwood on December 28, 2012:

When I was a kid I was fascinated watching my mum cleaning fish and chicken. I had the same fascination watching your video.

Levertis Steele from Southern Clime on December 28, 2012:

I was raised in a rural area where my siblings and I fished in ponds and branches and dreamed of catching the big bass we always saw swimming lazily in the crystal-clear lake nearby. Your hub brings back old memories and makes me want to go fishing, although many floods brought alligators to our region and killed my fishing spirit.

Thanks for sharing.

Marty Andersen (author) from Salina, Utah on December 28, 2012:

Thanks, I'll do anything to get to go fishing!

Comfort Babatola from Bonaire, GA, USA on December 28, 2012:

Nice hub. Well written and detailed. Love the images too.

Voted up and useful. And congrats on winning the HOTD award!

Ram Bansal from India on December 28, 2012:

very useful and informative hub..

Marty Andersen (author) from Salina, Utah on December 28, 2012:

Great comments CZCZCZ. Your right the most important things to remember, once you know what you are doing for the type of fish you are catching, is to keep your fish clean and have a good sharp fillet knife!

I'm fortunate to live only a couple of miles from where I caught these fish. We usually throw them back but once in a while we have them for dinner.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 28, 2012:

I have never cleaned a fish and probably never will but found this hub to be interesting and informative none-the-less. We love eating fish and generally leave the cleaning job to the butchers and fish mongers. Now because of your hub and that first video, I would know how to do it. Congratulations on your Hub of the Day. Well deserved. Voted up, useful and interesting.

CZCZCZ from Oregon on December 28, 2012:

Great details on cleaning a rainbow trout. I have found that there is several ways to clean a fish, but the core necessities like a good table and surface, running water, and super sharp nice is important regardless of cleaning the guts out of fish like a trout, filleting a slab off a halibut or removing the loins of an albacore tuna. Congrats on getting the hub of the day honors for this well written and detailed article.

Marty Andersen (author) from Salina, Utah on December 28, 2012:

Thanks, writing this hub was a lot of fun and the fish tasted great!

wabash annie from Colorado Front Range on December 28, 2012:

Excellent suggestions and the pictures helped tremendously. Thanks for sharing!

Susan Britton from Ontario, Canada on December 28, 2012:

Congratulations on HOD. Great directions with the photos and you even mention how messy and sticky it is. Well done Flash.

Mary Craig from New York on December 28, 2012:

I had to come back and congratulate you on HOD...told you you did a great job here!!!

Chloe Quinn from U S on December 28, 2012:

Its very good method to clean the fish .... All the dirty parts of fish is separate from its meat.

iguidenetwork from Austin, TX on December 28, 2012:

I have been enjoying eating fish but I haven't tried cleaning and gutting one as I have no idea how. Thanks for posting the instructions. Voted up and useful. :)

MrAhmad from Edmonton, Canada on December 16, 2012:

Good informative article! I really enjoyed it.

JR Krishna from India on December 14, 2012:

I liked your hub.

I grew up in a place where we got fresh river fish and seafish.

We bought fresh fish every time and cut and cleaned at home.

Your hub reminded me of those days.......

Thanks for sharing

Mary Craig from New York on December 14, 2012:

While I can't imagine every cleaning a fish I have to admit you've done a great job here. Your explanations are clear and your pictures great! Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and shared!