How to gut and gill a fish | Captain Quinn

How to Clean/Gut a Fish

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When you've had a productive day on the water and brought home a cooler, creel, or stringer of fish, there's still work to be done before you can enjoy your freshly caught meal. Cleaning and gutting fish can be a quick task once you've had a little practice. This article provides instructions how to clean fish with and without scales, and how to gut them in preparation for making fillets.


Prepare to Clean Your Fish

  1. Plan to clean the fish within an hour or two of catching it.Fish spoil rapidly after they die, so have a plan in place to clean them as soon as you're off the boat. Keep them alive in the water on a string until your fishing expedition is over, and ice them down in a cooler when it's time to pack up for the day.
    • Keep the fish wet until you scale them. If they have dried out, soak them a few minutes in ice water before scaling to make the scales easier to remove.
    • If you're buying a whole fish from the market, clean it as soon as you get home, rather than storing it in the refrigerator. You should also plan to eat it the same day you buy it.
  2. Set up a table outdoors and cover it with newspaper.Try to find a table high enough to work comfortably on, that can be rinsed easily with a garden hose when you are finished.
    • Avoid setting up your cleaning station indoors. Cleaning and gutting a fish is a messy job, and you won't want to clean scales or skin off your kitchen counter tops, sink, and walls when you are finished.
    • Many marinas and other fishing areas have cleaning stations set up for this purpose. Know ahead of time whether you'll have access to one, and make sure it has running water.
  3. Gather your supplies before you begin.Set out a bucket for the fish parts, gloves if you want to wear them, a sharp cutting knife, and a container for the cleaned fish. If you have a lot of fish to clean, set out a cooler full of ice to keep the cleaned fish cold.
    • If your fish has scales, you'll need a butter knife or a scaling tool; either one works just as well.
    • If your fish does not have scales, you'll need a pair of pliers, or something sharp, to peel the skin off of the fish.

How to Clean Fish with Scales

  1. Remove a fish from the cooler, bucket, or other container.Set it on top of the newspaper.
    • Only remove one fish at a time. Keep the remaining fish cold in the cooler while you work.
  2. Begin scaling the fish.Hold it firmly by the head and scrape the scales from the tail toward the gills with a butter knife or scaling tool. Test for the right pressure; the scales should come loose easily and fly off.
    • Keep the strokes of your scaler short and quick. Avoid pressing too hard and gashing the fish.
    • Work carefully around the fins, since they can prick or puncture your skin.
    • Be sure to remove all of the scales from both sides of the fish. Don't forget the scales around the pectoral and dorsal fins, and up to the throat, which is the edge of the fish's gills.
  3. Rinse the fish.Use your hose, or the faucet provided by the marina. The pressure should be just strong enough to remove loose scales; avoid blasting the fish with water, as the meat inside is delicate.
  4. Place the scaled fish in the cooler and move on to the next fish.If you're ready to gut the fish, skip ahead to How to Gut a Fish.

How to Clean a Fish with Skin

  1. Remove your fish (most commonly a catfish) from the cooler, bucket, or other container.Set it belly down on top of the newspaper.
    • If you're skinning catfish, it's recommended that you wear a pair of gloves. Catfish have sharp spines that can cut you.
    • Again, only remove one fish at a time. Keep the remaining fish cold in the cooler while you work.
  2. Make a cut behind the dorsal fin, over the back, and under the other dorsal fin.Grasp the head to anchor yourself during this process.
    • Slice off the dorsal and ventral fins if you wish. If you're working with a particularly spiny catfish, the skinning process may be easier if you remove the fins. This isn't necessary if your catfish is less spiny.
  3. Make a perpendicular cut along the spine.Take care not to break the spine with your knife; just make a shallow cut to help in the skinning process.
  4. Use the pliers to peel back the skin.Lay the fish on its side and use the pliers to grasp the skin where you made a cut at the dorsal fin. Pull the skin toward the tail. Flip the fish and peel back the skin on the other side.
    • Use a knife to help loosen the skin if it's difficult to peel.
    • Remove remaining bits of skin with your fingers, if necessary.
  5. Rinse the fish.Use your hose, or the faucet provided by the marina. The pressure should be just strong enough to remove loose pieces of skin; avoid blasting the fish with water, as the meat inside is delicate.
  6. Place the skinned fish in the cooler and move on to the next fish.

How to Gut a Fish

  1. Insert the fillet knife into the anus near the tail.Draw the knife toward the head, splitting the fish to the base of the gills.
    • Small pan fish can be held in one hand, while the knife work is done with the other. Large fish should be held on their back on the table.
  2. Spread the abdominal cavity with your fingers.Reach in and pull out the entrails. Place them in the bucket you set aside for this purpose.
  3. Rinse the cavity out with a good stream of water.Use a garden house or faucet to rinse the outside of the fish, too.
  4. Remove the head if you like.Trout are often cooked with the head on, but pan fish heads are usually cut off behind the gills.

Community Q&A

  • Question
    How can I tell if the fish has diseases?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Look for spots or sores on the skin that show signs of infection, and other abnormalities like patches of discoloration. Also, wounds that appear to have not been caused by a cut or injury are suspicious.
  • Question
    How do I cook a fish outdoors?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Gut the fish. If it's a trout, cut from the anus up to the head area. Then, cut the little flap under the chin of the fish. Grab that tab and pull down towards the anus. That pulls the guts and everything you wouldn't want to eat out of the fish. Then, season your fish however you want and wrap it in tinfoil. Place on hot embers. Wait until flesh is flakey and white. Enjoy!
  • Question
    Is it okay to eat the skin remaining on sunfish?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Yes, try it with salt and lemon juice or butter!
  • Question
    Can I freeze a fish without it being cleaned?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    No, you can't. It is essential that you clean it first or else it won't be a good for food.
  • Question
    How do I cook a bass without filleting it?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Gut it, wrap it in aluminum foil, and cook it on some campfire coals or a grill for about 30 minutes. When you remove the foil, the skin will come with it. Pull the skeleton out in one piece, like a trout.
  • Question
    How do I cook a trout filet?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    You could pan-fry or grill it. It is also good smoked.
  • Question
    How do I cut the gills out?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    You shouldn't have to. When gutting a fish, start with your knife in the anus, cut thru to the pelvic fin, then slice the head off from behind the pectoral fins. That removes both the head and gills. If you scale your fish, always do that BEFORE gutting the fish. Then scrape the insides out, flush out any extra stray pieces with water, and you're good to go!
  • Question
    How do I cut or fillet those fish that have many small bones, or 'whisker bones', in them like Asian Carp, Muskellunge, Pike?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    You just have to take them out by hand, and even then the bones still might be there.
  • Question
    What is the best way to dispose of fish guts?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Just dump it on the ground and bury it if possible. If the ground is concrete or stone, find a green-colored garbage can and throw it in there.
Unanswered Questions
  • Why is it important to scale or peel the skin off the fish before I gut it?
  • How do I fillet a fish?
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Best way to clean and gut fish.

Quick Summary

Before cleaning and gutting your fish, set up a table outside to avoid making a mess indoors. To start cleaning, remove 1 fish at a time from your bucket of water and scrape off the scales with a butter knife, working from the tail to the head. When you've scaled all of your fish, gut them by inserting a knife near the tail and slicing the fish to the gills. Spread the abdominal cavity with your fingers, then pull out the entrails. To finish, wash the fish with a garden hose and chop off their heads behind the gills.

Did this summary help you?
  • Clean your fish cleaning table before the leftovers dry out, collect the guts, heads, and scales, and bury them or otherwise dispose of them to avoid a nasty surprise smell later on. These leavings are also very good for plants, so if you can bury them in gardens, they will really benefit the plants there.
  • Using a dull butter knife or the edge of a spoon for scaling will help prevent "gashing" the flesh of the fish while you clean it. Sporting goods stores also sell "fish scalers," if you prefer.
  • Rinsing the fish with lemon juice, as well as water, after it has been cleaned can sometimes help remove the "fishy" smell associated with cleaning fresh fish.
  • If you must scale the fish inside, fill a basin with water and scrape the scales while holding the fish underwater. That will prevent the scales from flying all over the place. Rinse the fish well after you are done.
  • Fish with very fine scales, like flounder, take a great deal of patience to clean. Take your time, some people are very sensitive to getting scales in their mouth while eating.
  • "Fillet knives" and electric knives are very helpful, especially on large fish.
  • Some fish have a dark tissue lining the abdominal cavity that can be scraped off to remove the strong, oily flavor it contains.
  • Large fish will need to be filleted to cook properly.
  • Always be sure that the fish is dead before you scale it or cut it because if you do not that is just cruel.


  • Some fish have very sharp teeth. If you are accidentally bitten by a fish, pry their mouth open and remove your finger, never jerk it out while the fish is clamped on it.
  • Research the area you are fishing to determine if the fish are safe to eat. For example, in Florida, some watersheds and bodies of water are polluted with mercury and other heavy metals that fish absorb. These accumulate in the fish tissue, and eating contaminated fish frequently can have serious health consequences.
  • Fish fins can be very sharp and cause serious puncture wounds.
  • Some exotic fish can be toxic if not prepared properly, such as puffer fish.
  • Some fish are practically too bony or strong flavored to be considered edible.
  • A good rule-of-thumb to use is: if the fish is caught out of reservoir, don't eat it as contaminants and runoff wastes are likely. Conversely, a fish plucked out of a lake may be considered preferential to cooking and eating, because a lake is being replenished in some fashion, such as with a contributing river or by underground springs.

Things You'll Need

  • Cutting knife
  • Work table
  • Scaling tool, either a dull knife or a spoon
  • Container for the "cleaned" fish
  • Bucket for scales and discarded fish parts
  • Gloves (Optional)
  • Pliers for skinning fish

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