Introduction: How to Clean a Fish

Picture of How to Clean a Fish

As a beginner fisherman or fisherwoman, it is easy to get into the excitement of reeling in an 8 pound wallet, or fighting back and forth with a Northern. What happens after you make the catch? The following instructions will give you a basic look at how to fillet and prepare a fish for cooking. No matter the method you choose for cooking the fish, freshly caught fish are a delicious treat while camping or even in the comfort of your own home. Due to the use of knives and cutting into live animals, I suggest that any user be at least 13 years old. This is also intended for beginners; it is a simple, basic guide, taking about 15 minutes to complete.

Note: Because of my geographic region and time of year, I will be using a Tilapia. The cleaning of other fish may be more difficult or incur specific changes. For example, cleaning a Northern is much more difficult due to the amount and placement of their bones.

Step 1: Gather Materials

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* Fillet Knife

* Cutting board (at least the length of the fish; double the length will work best)

* Fish

* Bowl of Cold water

WARNING: The use of a sharp knife is dangerous, but a dull knife is even more dangerous. Make sure your knife is sharp and follow proper knife safety (; always keep fingers out of the projection of the knife.

Step 2: Separate the Spine From the Fillet

Picture of Separate the Spine From the Fillet

Separate the Spine from the Fillet:

a. Lay the fish on its side with the spine facing you.

b. Place your knife at a 45 degree angle, under the fin, at the point where the gills meet the body of the fish.

c. Make a downward cut that is about 1/2 of an inch deep or half the width of the fish. This cut should reach from the spine to the belly.

Step 3: Separate the Spine and Ribcage From the Fillet

Picture of Separate the Spine and Ribcage From the Fillet

Separate the Spine from the Fillet:

a. Place your knife at the point that your first cut meets the spine of the fish.

b. Make a horizontal cut as close as you can get to the spine while still ensuring there are no bones in the fillet. The cut should go from the gills until just before the tail and only go through half the height of the fish.
**Note that this might not be one fluid cut. You will need to pay attention to where the bones are and move slowly.
**Make sure that you do not cut the fillet off the tail yet.

c. After you separate the spine you will spread the cut open so that you can see the spine.

d. Now that you can see into the center of the fish, you can locate the ribcage and separate it from the fillet.

Step 4: Separate the Stomach From the Fillet

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Separate the Stomach from the Fillet:

a. Flip the fish so that the cut side is still facing up, but the stomach is now facing you, instead of the spine.

b. Cut through the fish in the same manner as Step 3, avoiding the stomach and guts.
**Use your first cut as a guide to wear the spine and rib cage are located.
**Make sure you still cut above the spine and ribs.
**When you get to the bottom of the fish, be careful not to cut through the tail just like in Step 3.

c. Peal the fillet away from the gills like you are opening a book, with the tail acting as the binding. The head and body should be on your left side and the fillet should be on your right.

Step 5: Separate the Fillet From the Skin

Picture of Separate the Fillet From the Skin

Separating the Fillet from the Skin:

a. Before you cut anything yet, carefully place your knife at the tail of the fish so that you will be able to make a horizontal cut the fish from the tail to the end of the fillet.

b. Without cutting through the skin of the fish, make a horizontal cut as close to the skin as possible.
**This may take more than one fluid cut depending on your skill level, but when finished you should have the fillet completely separated from the fish, with no bones or skins attached.

CAUTION: Sometimes you might have bits of skin attached. If this occurs, simply cut or peel the bits of skin off.

Step 6: Repeat

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a. Flip the fish over and repeat all steps in order to separate the second fillet from the fish.

b. Repeat all steps again for any additional fish.

DANGER: If camping, make sure to follow campground regulations when disposing of fish remains. Failure to due so could attract animals, such as bears, and result in injury or death.

The more practice you get, the better feel you will get for the anatomy of a fish. This will allow you to make more precise cuts, attain more meat from the fish, and go through the process quicker. No matter how long it takes you or how "pretty" your fillet looks however, freshly caught and cooked fish is a taste that is incomparable to buying fillets from the market.


Robot Lover (author)2011-11-04

Great ible'! You should mention that if the fish is not already dead that it needs to be killed in the most humane and quickest way. For example, hitting the head with a stone or clubbing it with the handle of your knife. Doing either of these should ensure a fast and hopefully near painless death for the fish. Again good instructable!

here's a humane thought put all the fish layer out on the ground or a table before you clean them and let them slowly die... I mean come on guys fish are not human there is no such thing as humane with cleaning them

damionflynn (author)Robot Lover2011-11-10

I have clubbed sharks to keep them from biting me, but how do you club a small fish to kill it humanely? I usually just filet the thing while it is flopping around. I have fileted trout before (white and specks) and threw their bodies back in the water and watched them swim off.

hrodriguez7 (author)damionflynn2011-11-11

isn't that illigal?

I think its considered animal crualty
I should look it up

Did you look it up yet? Fish are not animals. They are fish. There is a totally seperate set of rules with fishing and hunting, in every state. I am just stating this. I agree with a humane death. Fish do not die a slow death on ice either, they go into a type of induced hybernation, unless it is a very long period, I.E. winter kill. I live in Iowa and I ice fish evey year and I have on several occasions, had bait fish start dying on me, and then put them in a 5 gallon bucket full of ice and water, and when I bring them out of that and began to put them on my hook, they have bacame live and full of "zest"! I also know that this brings up the oxygen level in the water also, but it also slows down their metabolism. They do deserve a humane death along with everything else. I am a hunter and fisherman. I love hunting and fishing and living off of the land. Sportsmans are generally, productive, efficient, effective, conservative, resptectful and resorceful. Almost all of the money raised to benifit animals in everyway in the U.S. is paid for by hunters. This is fact.

well, the whole reason Iput up that coment was because I thought it was wierd to fillet a fish while its alive

damionflynn (author)hrodriguez72011-11-10

LOL (I lol'ed as I assume you are joking)

In the unlikely instance that you are actually serious, no, it is not considered animal cruelty and it is not illegal. I believe it is more humane to filet as you catch. Not only is the meat fresher (my benefit), but I think it is more humane than throwing the fish in an ice chest to slowly die on ice.

hrodriguez7 (author)damionflynn2011-11-11

good point!

whiteoakart (author)damionflynn2011-11-11

Throwing it in ice water is the most humane way (for temperate and warm water fish). Fish are cold-blooded so don't feel pain from the cold like we warm-blooded critters do. They just slow down and go to sleep. Unless they are Alaskan Salmon. In which case, they'll like the ice water and thank you for it. All fish will, however, feel the painful effects of being filleted alive.

rtanner (author)damionflynn2011-11-11

No I think he's asking if it's legal to slice it open (filet) and then toss it back in the water....

damionflynn (author)rtanner2011-11-10

I guess that is possible too :-)
That more than likely is going to depend on where you live and where you fish. Private lakes (and those ran by recreation departments) will have their own rules, but legalities will definitely be brought to a state level, and even to a more local level.

I predominantly fish in salt water in the Gulf. If I catch 100 trout, filet them, and throw their bodies and innards in the water, they will be washed out and consumed by scavengers (sharks, catfish, crabs, etc). In a lake, turtles and snakes may take care of a good portion of that but I could not imagine what it would be like if everyone did it and the ecosystem was not strong enough to support the cleanup as it is in the Gulf (or Ocean). In that case, I could see local municipalities placing regulations on it....

Robot Lover (author)Robot Lover2011-11-10

Me and my dad just hold the cleaning knife buy the blade and whack it several times on the head. Also, I'm not a hippie or anything but I would just like to say that you caught the fish and he is going to serve as a meal. The least you could do is kill him quickly so he doesn't suffer. Thanks for the reply!

Joshuahayes2006 made it! (author)2016-05-15

also with me and alot of others I know will sometimes cut all the way through the ribs, cutting the ribs away from the spine with the fillet, then cut the rib cage out of the fillet...

chokapi (author)2014-04-22

I feel that this 'ible should be titled, 'How to Filet a Fish.' I was actually looking for one to clean a fish, or gut one and prepare it for cooking whole.

I don't filet fish.

Pfarmkid (author)2012-03-15

no no no this is all wrong

step one catch fish

step two get hot clean water and add soap

just kidding nice 'ible

9w2xyz (author)2012-03-11

what happened to your thumb? Ow.

dawankler (author)2011-11-10

This isn't "cleaning" a fish, it's a method of boneless fileting a whole fish. I prefer actually cleaning the fish before I filet it in order to avoid the chance of puncturing the guts and contaminating the meat. I also recommend whole roasting fresh caught fish, as I think you're cutting and throwing away half the fish and flavor using this method.

ckoellein (author)dawankler2011-11-13


Gutting and whole roasting or baking or coal searing is much better... fish meat changes phenomenally when it transistions to "cooked". VERY easy to pull off the bones when cooked. I HATE wasting all that meat when I filet a fish. been baking the whole thing more and more lately.

And no, I am nowhere near the spiritual green-freak fellow who posted before me about kindness to the fish. I just see no point in being painful to the fish, plus, it's a waste of tasty meat! Six of one, half-dozen of the other.

Scanner2 (author)ckoellein2012-01-15

I agree with you regarding the best use of the fish or any animal and not wasting when it can be avoided.

I would also like to add that I ride dirt bikes (well over 100 mph off road), shoot high powered weapons, and have hunted big game from primitive camps up in the Rocky Mountains. Therefore, I would not want to be taken as a spiritual green-freak. Having said that, I also strongly advocate killing my game as quickly and cleanly as possible. That is out of respect for animals, and out of self respect as well.

Part of a man's character may be judged by how he treats living creatures over whom he has absolute power.....

All the best to you!

Josehf Murchison (author)2011-11-11

What is that a Blue Gill?
I have a two cut technique I use on Pike.
If the knife slips at the tail and cuts the fillet with the skin on I use a fork to hold the skin as I separate the meat from the skin.

Its actually just a tilapia. I did this for a class so I didn't have the time to go out and catch a fish myself.

Normally I would use this technique with a wallet. Its probably not the fastest or most efficient, but it works well with limited resources when you want to bread and fry your fish while camping.

In Canada Tilapia is a tropical fish we buy at the pet store for our aquarium. I have never seen one that large. It is very similar to a fish here in Canada called a Blue Gill Sun Fish a great fish to take the kids fishing for the first time.

9w2xyz (author)Josehf Murchison2011-12-18

IN the tropics a tilapia can get 14 inches long and be as thick across the ribcage as much as 3 inches.

maurice1993 (author)9w2xyz2011-12-27

once I catch a tilapia that weighted almost 3 Kilograms... this fish can get pretty big if the water is warm anough and there is enough food around, and it's pretty tasty

gcai_fwb (author)2011-11-10

I'd like to catch and 8 lb. wallet too :-)
shouldn't be too hard to fillet but cooking could pressent a problem

kategarfin (author)gcai_fwb2011-11-20

My family and I usually just bread and fry the fish while we're camping. Its actually very simple!

cenglish4 (author)2011-11-20

Cool, this is good for beggining fisherman.

submark (author)2011-11-11

Great 'bile.
It is good to see anything that will help folks get into, understand, enjoy, and profit from fishing.
I would like to put in a word for dispatching fish humanely as well as barbless hooks and catch and release fishing,
A blow to the back of the fish's skull above the gills with a club or rock is usually best for larger (1 lb and larger) fish. With many fish the eyes will stop moving and be 'centered' and the fish will quiver and stop thrashing. Repeat as necessary to ensure a quick death. Smaller fish are best killed with a knife point into the top of the skull between the eyes.
Remember you are killing a living thing and it should be done swiftly and well and with respect to the animal and resource.
Place the fish (filleted, whole or gutted) in a cooler on top of ice and out of any water, which will degrade the meat. You can also slide the fish into sealable plastic bags to ensure freshness and no contamination in the cooler. Keeps the cooler fresher, too.
Barbless hooks do less damage to fish you will release alive and they are much easier to remove from the fish as well as fingers, neck and Rottweiler's ears (ask me how I know that!) They often work better than barbed hooks and are much safer around pets and kids.
Keep only fish that you or others will use fresh. It is the best tasting and too many fish get left in the freezer and get freezer burned and end up being discarded later. What a waste!

hrodriguez7 (author)2011-11-11

Judging by the title, I thought the pictures of this instructable vvould be bloody

moral to the story, kids.......
''dont judge a book by its cover''

dsisk (author)2011-11-10

I love how this article is put in the email just 2 days after Glenn Beck horribly cleans a fish on his show. It was a good segment though and the point well said but it took awhile for him to get there. It was funny.

Eye Poker (author)2011-11-10

Fish don't need to be cleaned, they live in water....

and-reas (author)Eye Poker2011-11-10

Not very clean water probably. Sand for example is likely to find.

danieleinad77 (author)2011-11-10

ok, now my keyboard smells of fish,,,

solidification (author)2011-11-10

This is very detailed and well written. esp for beginners. good job.

ilpug (author)2011-11-07

Yum! This is how I have done it forever. Fastest method, usually.

zazenergy (author)2011-10-28

This is a great Instructable. I've never tried doing this, but if I do, i'll definitely come back to your Instructable!

farzadbayan (author)zazenergy2011-11-07

Totally like me! :)

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