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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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