Congratulations, you’ve caught a fish that you want to take home for dinner. For the best possible meal, start by treating the fish right from the moment you land it. If you're going to eat your catch, you have to keep it fresh, even before you begin cleaning your fish. Keep caught fish in a live well, a cooler or on a stringer in the water. And always fill your cooler or live well with the same water you're fishing in. Fish spoil quickly if you don't handle them properly from the moment you land them. Spoiled fish can have softened flesh, a strong flavor and a "fishy" or sour odor. In this section we'll give you some basic tips on how to clean fish. And some more detailed information on scaling, how to fillet a fish, steaking your fish and storing your catch.

Tip: If you're not going to eat your catch, unhook it carefully—while it's still in the water—and release it using proper catch and release practices.

Things You'll Need For Cleaning Your Fish 

  • Work table
  • A good fillet or fish-cleaning knife
  • Scaling tool, or a dull knife or a spoon
  • Container for the cleaned fish, zip-top bags work great
  • Bucket for scales and discarded fish parts

When you think of a fish dinner, most of us think of a fillet on our plate. While filleting is perhaps the most common preparation for cleaning your fish, keeping a fish whole for roasting or grilling is also a great way to enjoy fish. If you plan on keeping your catch whole, you’ll need to clean and scale it. If you are going to fillet the fish, these steps are unnecessary.

Some species of fish have body shapes that don’t lend themselves to filleting and are more commonly steaked, such as wahoo and some larger salmon. If you are going to steak a fish, you’ll need to clean and scale it first as well.

How to Fillet a Fish

An illustration of how to filet a fish, but cutting the fish from behind the gills out to its tail, slicing close to the bone

When cleaning your fish, filleting means cutting out the meat of the fish without the bones. Larger fish, like largemouth bass, redfish, striped bass and walleye are usually filleted. A filleted fish has its skin and all of its bones removed before cooking. Scaling isn't necessary.

Fillet knives have a long, thin blade that's very sharp and specifically designed for filleting fish. To work properly, they must be really, really sharp. If you have any slime on your hands or the fillet knife handle, wash it off to prevent slipping.

Tip: When learning how to fillet a fish, you can also wear metal- or rubber-mesh fish-cleaning gloves to protect your hands.

Here are the steps on how to fillet a fish:

  1. Lay the fish on its side on a flat surface
  2. Cut the fish behind its gills and pectoral fin down to, but not through, the backbone
  3. Turn the fish so that its back (dorsal fin) is facing you. Make a long slice along the back of the fish from the cut you made behind the gills all the way to the tail
  4. Repeat this slicing motion until you can lift the meat part way away from the back bone with your thumb
  5. Once you can lift the meat partially away, continue to run the tip of the knife along the ribs of the fish till you lift the fillet most of the way off the carcass
  6. Push the blade of your fillet knife all the way through the body of fish from the dorsal side through to belly at the anal vent, and pull the knife towards the tail to separate the fillet from the rest of the fish
  7. Repeat these steps on the other side of the fish
  8. Lay the fillet on the table with the skin side down. Insert the knife blade about a 1/2-inch from the tail, gripping firmly and put the blade between the skin and the meat at an angle
  9. Using a little pressure and a sawing motion, cut against, but not through, the skin
  10. Remove the fillets from the skin
  11. Wash each fillet in cold water
  12. Pat dry with a clean cloth or paper towel. The fillets are ready to cook or freeze

Tip: Smaller pan fish can be filleted the same way, but the bones of these fish are small enough for the knife to pass through. Follow steps 1 and 2, but then turn the blade so it is flat like the table and work it from head to tail. The knife blade will be longer than the fish is wide, so it should make one clean pass from the head to the tail resulting in a small fillet.

How to Clean a Whole Fish

If you are planning on cooking your fish whole or if you are going to steak it, rather than filleting it, cleaning your fish is a must.

  1. To begin, rest the fish on the table or cutting board. Insert the knife tip into the fish's belly near the anal opening and move the blade up along the belly, cutting to the head (or you can starting cutting from the head down to the anal opening)
  2. Keep the knife blade shallow so you don't puncture the intestines
  3. Spread the body open and remove all of the entrails, locate the fish's anus and cut this out in a "V" or notch shape
  4. Some fish have a kidney by the backbone. Remove it by scraping it out with a spoon or your thumbnail
  5. Rinse the cavity out with a good stream of water and wash the skin. Some fish have a dark tissue lining the abdominal cavity that can be scraped off to prevent a strong, oily flavor
  6. Remove the head if you like, trout are often cooked with the head on
  7. Clean your fish-cleaning table immediately, collect the guts, heads, and scales, and discard them properly
  8. Your clean fish is now ready to be cooked

How to Scale a Fish

An illustration of scaling the side body portion of a clean fish

When learning how to clean fish, you may need to scale the fish. Scale the fish on a flat surface using one hand to hold it by the head. Rake the scales from the tail toward the head with a fish scaler or a large spoon. Remove the scales on both sides of the body.

Tip: Some fish, like flounder, have very fine scales. These take a great deal of patience when cleaning your fish. Take your time—some people are very sensitive to getting scales in their mouth while eating.

How to Skin a Fish

Removing the skin improves the taste of many fish. It also removes a layer of fat just under the skin. Catfish, bullheads and other bottom-feeding fish are usually skinned.

  1. Hold the catfish by its head firmly on a flat surface with a clamp—it's a good idea to snip off the spines before skinning
  2. Cut through the skin behind the head and pectoral fins
  3. Use pliers to remove the skin from the body, pulling from the head toward the tail
  4. Grasp the head of the fish with one hand and the body with the other, break the backbone at the head
  5. Pull the head and guts away from the skinned body
  6. Wash it in clean water and your clean fish is ready for cooking

Steaking Your Fish

A large fish is often cut across the body into thick steaks. Before steaking your fish, chill the fish or put it in a freezer until it is partly stiff for easier cutting. Cleaning your fish comes next, it can be cleaned much like other fish. Then remove the skin or scales if necessary (salmon steaks are often prepared with the skin still on).

Cut through the body working from the tail toward the head. Make each steak from 1/2-inch to 1-inch thick. After steaking your fish, trim away any belly fat or bones you can see, but not the backbone.

Tips and Warnings Around How to Clean Fish 

  • Fish fins can be very sharp and cause serious puncture wounds, so be very careful when learning how to fillet a fish or clean a fish whole
  • Some fish are too bony or strong flavored to be considered edible
  • Some fish have very sharp teeth, be careful if you're holding a fish by the head while cleaning your fish
  • Research the area you're fishing to determine if the fish are safe to eat, some bodies of water are polluted with mercury and other heavy metals that fish absorb. Always check your state regulations before your head out fishing.

Now that you have a clean fish, or prepared your steaks or fillets, you can store your fish or cook your fish! Check out our favorite cooking methods and recipes as well.