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.

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Step 1: Gather Materials


* 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

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

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

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

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


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.



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31 Discussions

Robot Lover

7 years ago on Introduction

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!

6 replies
Joshuahayes2006Robot Lover

Reply 3 years ago

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


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.

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.


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!


5 years ago on Introduction

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.


7 years ago on Introduction

no no no this is all wrong

step one catch fish

step two get hot clean water and add soap

just kidding nice 'ible


7 years ago on Step 5

what happened to your thumb? Ow.


7 years ago on Introduction

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.

2 replies

Reply 7 years ago on Introduction


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.


Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

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!

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.

4 replies

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.


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


Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

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


7 years ago on Introduction

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

1 reply

Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

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