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Cleaning fish - tips appreciated

Having recently moved to a lake with plentiful fish, I realize now that my cleaning skills are a far cry from my grandmother's. After cleaning four beautiful specimens last night (two bluegill and two crappie), I still ended up with a bit of innards and too many scales in my finished product. I grilled them whole, so my relative messiness didn't ruin the meal -- but the end result was far less polished than I'd like.

So you accomplished fish-cleaners out there, what are your best tips, especially for panfish with thin and delicate fillets?

Scale first then gut? Use a scaling tool, or just make do with a knife? And what kind of knife is best? I've heard raves and thumbs-down for the electric knife. My main objective is not to waste one iota of these great little creatures.

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  1. Scale and gut using a sharp filet knife only.
    You'll get better at it with practice like your grandmother.

    1. I very often take the skin off so I haven't scaled in a while but like Monku says: a sharp filet knife is key!!! I'm good but it does take practice. I like a glove too. Check out this video:

      1. I find scaling the fish under running water helps keep the scales from flying all around and maybe it gets most of them off too.

        1. I don’t fish so I can’t help you with the gutting. However, I do buy whole fish. If you are going to do a lot of cleaning then I would suggest purchasing a scaling tool. I use a soup spoon to take off the scales. I put the fish in a large garbage bag and scrape away. That keeps the scales from going all over the kitchen.

          To fillet them, cut the head off first, then use the backbone as a guide. If you are not too squeamish, fry up the heads too. There is a lot of good meat there. I never eat them at the table out of respect for my wimpy family. I also fry the backbone because there is meat on that, too. Here is a good video on filleting: http://www.chow.com/stories/11243.

          4 Replies
          1. re: EvZE

            OP's fish are "pan fish" which are pretty small so you usually don't filet or remove the heads.

            1. re: monku

              I once fileted 26 sunfish for fish nuggets - It was kind of a joke but still good. White perch are my favs, sooo sweet. I filet everything.

              WEnt on a deep sea fishing trip with all guys and after catching 32 cod and haddock, they realized that only two of them knew how to filet or clean fish - until I fessed up, grabbed a knife and went to town. It was fun. - hadn't filet big fish at that point but basically the same.

              1. re: lexpatti

                My wife taught me to fish and clean them and told me we needed a fishing boat.

                1. re: monku

                  :-) We just recently got kayaks, I really want to rig it up for fishing.

          2. I've always used a spoon (outside) to scale bream, crappie, etc. first --- Cut the head off being careful to keep all of the flesh possible....Using a sharp pointed knife go into the anus and cut open the gut toward the head (where it used to be) Remove all guts, eggs etc. with your fingers....Once you have cleaned all you have...take them to the sink, and re-check the gut cavity....Large white perch can be filleted....Never been a fan of filleting bream etc.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Uncle Bob

              IMHO this is the definitive way to clean a bream.

              When you eat them make sure you nibble on the thin part of the tail fin that gets crusty. That's one of the best parts.

              1. re: GrillMaster

                Seriously--delicious. I would keep the egg sac too, dust it with cornmeal, and fry it with the fish. Yum yum.

            2. Sam's guide:

              1. Place fish on solid surface and hit over the head with an empty wine bottle.
              2. Scale using a scaler of the back of a table knife. Running water is good.
              3. Poke filleting knife into the anus and cut open up to the cheek; cut a bit back of the anus as well; try for single, smooth slicing action.
              4. Reach in, hook, and pull out all the innards (save any roe, depending on fish); wash out the cavity, making sure to get any black veiny stuff on the rib walls.
              5. Pull out and discard the gills.
              6. Unless doing a whole fish, I usually remove and discard all fins and the tail (good kitchen scissors for the fins).
              7. Now you can fillet or cut into steaks (cross-wise), or leave for whole cooking.

                1. I generally do not fillet small fish under two pounds, which covers most bluegills and a lot of crappies. You lose too much flesh doing that. So I generally just degut them, cut off the heads, tails, and fins. However . . .

                  There is a wonderful gadget that you can get at some sporting goods stores that you attach to a small flap of fish skin, which you got lose from the fish's body by sliding your knife under the skin. You twist a handle on it and it removes all of the fish skin and, of course, scales, removing only the skin and leaving the flesh. It sounds too good to be true, but it really works well.

                  Yeah, on a larger fish, I would just fillet it and remove the skin with a sharp knife, but this gadget really works better on small fish and you can still leave the fish whole, rather than having to fillet it.

                  There are various versions of this gadget around. You shouldn't have much trouble finding one. I hope that this helps.

                  1. If you google fileting a fish or something similar you will get to sites that demonstrate you how to do it, that would be the best way to learn.

                    1. I'd go nuts filleting anything under 1-1/2 lbs. Besides there is too much waste on a frame with not much meat to start with.

                      For sure I'd get one of those cheap, stamped scaling tools. They work best on fish with larger, coarser scales such as Crappie, Sunfish, Bluegills and Perch. It is always easiest to scale a whole fish before first cut. I do this outside by a tap so I can rinse as I go. I finish any loose scales inside. In fact the whole process can take place outside.

                      It's just my preference, but I take the heads off - You can see where the bone ends and the muscle begins at the top of the fish's head - start there and angle your cut just behind the pectoral fin.

                      As described, insert the knife tip into the vent and slit up between the two ventral fins right to the front. Pull out the innards - you may have to trim the gut where it attaches at the vent. The innards are held in by a thin white abdominal membrane - remove as much as you can making sure you leave no bloody tissue etc - the bit of membrane that persists will be lost in the cooking. Don't worry about it.

                      Remove the two ventral fins with two angled cuts at their base.

                      Find a teaspoon with a pointy handle. There is a dark mass of tissue running along the underside of the spine - I believe it's the kindney, not sure. Scrape out as much as you can.

                      Make an incision along the back running the length of your fish: make it spine-deep.

                      The whole process should take less than 3 or 4 minutes.

                      Cook your catch which ever way. With a same-day fish, not over cooked, you should be able to lift a cooked fillet straight from the bone, and remove the spine and remaining fin structures cleanly leaving the other fillet on your plate. Next day or overcooked is iffy.

                      Skinning? Skins easiest on the plate.

                      DK, it sounds as if you will be doing this often. Given the presence of Bluegills and Crappies you will probably encounter something larger such as a Pike, Bass or Walleye. Large fish or small, I urge you to get a filleting knife, minimum 7 inches. Rapala, Normark or ??? at about $20 are perfecty suitable.

                      Take the knife to someone who knows abut sharpening tools and have them done - they're hopeless out of the package. My knife is sharpened by either a wooden boat-builder or a skate sharpener/wood-carver who's long retired from a local furniture factory now defunct.

                      1. First, check with your local health department to see if the fish are safe to eat -- many lake fish in the U.S. are not.

                        Way back in the day, I'd fish for blue gill and large-mouth bass for breakfast. Always took a knife out to the lake to gut and scale. The guts went into the lake for the snappers. Very small fish, so cooked them whole, never filleted.

                        1. People are talking about small fish like bluegill: you can also butterfly them - just gut and clean, take off the head, extend the cut at the rear all the way to the tail, open out and flatten the fish cavity up, and use a heavier knife to simply cut down and through all the ribs on one side, press down with your palm, and voila!

                          1. I agree with those who say to not bother filleting anything less than 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. I have a fondness for whole fish and these little guys are great. Gut first, obviously. Otherwise, you'll have all that dank bacteria mucking about with the precious flesh.

                            The gizzards (guts and such) are usually pretty easy to pull out. You can make an incision on the belly side, reach with in your index and middle fingers and pull out the organs which usually are in one big membrane. You can even slide the belly on down and wash the cavity out completely.

                            I scale with a spoon or the blunt side of the chef's knife, with the fish in the sink under running water. If they're frozen or super cold, I do what my madre did -- scaling right onto a double layer of newspaper.

                            If filleting is still your thing, I suggest a thin, flexible and super sharp filleting knife. I got a pretty decent one at the Asian store for less than a brand at Sur La Table (even with my pro discount).

                            Good luck!

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: wasabi

                              Maybe half the time I fillet one pound fish because: a) I can do it cleanly, and b) I use the frame (and head) for stock. Never let any part of a fish go to waste!

                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                on a bit of a segway here, but when you make stock, after you fillet the fish do you put the skin with scales in the stock pot. Generally when i fillet the fish i don't scale it first.

                                1. re: TroyTempest

                                  No skin and scales. Just head and frame.

                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    yeah, that's what i do too, but then i hear people saying they put skin in, so was just wondering

                            2. As always, you people are great. gfr1111, I have never seen a gadget like you describe, but you know I'm going to my sporting goods store to look for one this weekend.

                              I tried the method described in this video, and it has to be the very best I've ever seen:


                              I will also take many of your great suggestions into consideration. Removing the gills is the hardest part with a bluegill, because the mouth is so small. On sunfish and crappie, it's a ton easier, even though they're much bigger gills.

                              Thanks again to all.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: dmd_kc

                                If the presenter hadn't removed the fillets after cutting along the rib cage, he would have had a beautiful butterfly fillet. Here is another method I came across:


                                  1. re: DockPotato

                                    very kewl!!!! I'm going to try this, this weekend.