A Guide to Cleaning and Preparing Raw Fish After It's Caught

Man filleting a fish
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There are other methods of cleaning fish, but I prefer the fileting method which involves using a sharp knife with a straight (non-serrated) blade to separate slabs (filets) of flesh from the skeletal bones and skin. Some people like to leave the skin on the filets for cooking; if you do so, you should scale the fish before cleaning and filleting.

Almost any fish can be filleted but in my experience fish of 1/2 pound and up work best. After catching, I ice the fish down overnight to produce bloodless filets the next day, which is less "fishy" tasting.

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What You'll Need

Tools Needed for Fileting
Knife, flat table and sharpening tools are needed. Ronnie Garrison

You will need a good filet knife, sharpened well, and a flat table or large cutting board. Some people use electric knives, but while they can work well, I find that I often cut through the backbone and so avoid electric knives.

Fileting fish is fairly easy. Following is a step-by-step process that works for me.

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Step One: Slit the Belly

First Step - Slit the Belly
Slit the belly of the fish. Ronnie Garrison

Flatten the fish out on the board and make a slit through the belly of the fish, from just under the jaw down past the anal fin. I like to cut on either side of the anal fin--this helps guide the knife later. Here is where a sharp tip on your knife helps.

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Step Two: Cut Along the Backbone from Head to Tail

Second Filet Step - Cut along backbone
Cut along the backbone from head to tail. Ronnie Garrison

Lay the fish flat and cut across the body just behind the head. Cut down to the backbone but be careful not to cut through it. When your blade hits the bone, turn it sideways and cut toward the tail, following the slit in the belly and cutting as close to the backbone as possible. Your knife needs to be extremely sharp to cut through the rib bones during this step.

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Step Three: Cut the Skin Off the Filet

Third Filet Step - Cut Off Skin
Cut between the meat and the skin of the fish. Ronnie Garrison

Follow the backbone to the tail with your knife, stopping the cut before cutting through the skin at the tail. Let that skin hold the filet to the carcass and flip it over the opposite direction so that it lays flat. Now, cut between the skin and the meat, using a slight sawing motion with your knife, if necessary. 

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Step Four: Cut Out the Ribs

Fourth Filet Step - Cut Out Ribs
Cut out the ribs for a bone free filet. Ronnie Garrison

You now have a filet with rib bones. Many people like to leave them in but I cut them out, resulting in a boneless, skinless fillet. I usually put my fillets in a Ziploc bag with some salt and fill it with water, squeezing out all the water, and leave them in the refrigerator for a day or so.

To cook, take the filets out of the refrigerator,  rinse in cold water, pat dry, roll in cornmeal and fry.

If you choose, you can freeze the filets in the Ziploc bag. Whitefish such bass will keep many months. Oily fish,  like bass hybrids, start to get rancid in a few months, so I try to cook them within two months.