Fish Cleaning the Easy Way
A non messy way to fillet and leave the entrails intact
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   First Cut                 Slice down                       Finished Product       
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Leave skin attached            Lay Fillet Flat                     Slide Knife down                       Skinless Fillets  

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Fishing Filleting

Cleaning fish is either a pain in the boot-tay or a glory depending on how you a attack the job.  Once you've mastered the skills at becoming a productive fisherman you'll be faced with the problem of how to clean a large amounts of fish in a speedy fashion, without the cleaning table and you becoming a mess.  Also, how to fillet a fish, so it don't look like the neighborhood dog has been chewing on it, is more than helpful.  If an eye appealing product is what you're after, read on.  Filleting is an art form when done correctly.

The Knife

This is the all important tool that will do the job for you only if it's sharp and I mean razor sharp.  Those small thin bladed, flexible fillet knives that will work fine on pan fish and maybe the smaller variety of Walleyes are over matched when it come to a 10 pound Steelhead or a 20 some pound King or Chinook.  On these fish you'll need a reel knife with backbone and the ability to hold an edge, I use a 12 inch Forschner, the ones professional butchers use to cut up the meat you buy at your local market.  Forschner Knives are made by the same people who make the famous "Swiss Army Knife."  Hopefully, I can find a distributor and have them available for you by the start of the big lake season.  Be advised these knives are not cheap, but the quality and the name speaks for itself!

Sharpening Tools

You're going to need a sharpening steel and the skills to use it.  Diamond sharpening steels are even better, if you can find them.  A ceramic steel is nice if you can lay your hands on one too!  These tools will keep the razor sharp edge, necessary to lay perfect fillets on the table.  Besides, a dull knife is darn right dangerous, so extra sharp is the only way to go.  I'll spend at least 5 minutes putting an edge on a knife if it's in need of it.  Because the time savings a good sharp knife is worth it, and it will save you overall time in the long run.  A good edge is like power steering and will glide thought the toughest hide and flesh with amazing ease.

The Technique

Make the first cut just behind the gills without going too deep and turn your knife towards the tail of the fish.  This part here takes some practice but the object is to leave the entrails intact without spreading fish feces and bile all over flesh (see above photo).  Press down slightly on the heel of the knife, and run the blade over the top of the fishes rib cage.  This can be accomplished more easily if you attack the rib bones at a slight cross angle and let the knife follow the contour towards the tail.  Once the end of the rib cage is felt, flatten out the knife and continue towards the tail.  Remember, to use the entire edge and slice through the fish, not trying to just drag it towards to tail.  By using the entire edge the blade will have a tendency to retain it's edge longer too.


Stop just before you reach the tail and leave the skin attached there and flip or lay the fillet flat (skin side down).  Now slide the knife under the flesh at a slight angle to the skin while having a good grip in the fish carcass.  Slide the knife away from yourself and presto you've unzipped the skin from Mr. Fish in one fell swoop. 
Tip: Trim the edges of the fillet to a smooth edge and any fat or cartilage for a better looking  and more palatable product.

Great Fillets

Now, you'll have an award winning product like you'll see in the super market without the tearing and parting of the peal and slice method.  Also, and most important the flesh hasn't been soaked in the gut juice for lack of a better word, but let's face it, that's just what it is.  Cut the fillet in pieces, as not to break apart the flesh if it's large enough.  If you're going to freeze the fish, leave the skin on as it cuts down on the freezer burn and freeze the fish in water with a little bit of salt.  Shelf life on fish is only recommended for 3 months so don't think that fillet is going to retain it's flavor forever.  I strongly recommend sharing fresh with friends, or relatives.  Any Salmon, or Trout species does not like being frozen.  I great alternative is canning fresh fish over sticking it in the dreaded freezer.

Sanitary Concerns

Please keep in mind, most fish cleaning tables are not sanitary at all and all fish should be rinsed again at home or before freezing.  I'm sure we've all seen messy fish cleaning stations so there' no need to elaborate here.  Bleach, the regular household kind is great for disinfecting your fillet knife and should be used on the piece of wood or what ever you're using under the fish.

Safety Issues

Under no circumstances, should you ever pull or cut with the blade of the knife coming towards you.  Always cut away from yourself if you value your hide and fingers?  I've seen fingers almost cut off at the cleaning table before.  Besides, you develop more power with your arm by pushing away, if you're fatigued take a break.   When it comes to safety, don't be to broke to pay attention.

Don't worry if you mess up a few fish in the beginning when trying to clean fish.  You'll have many more in your future as a Great Lakes fisherman and the rewards this method pays is worth the dividends in the long run.  Also, this page is in need of proof reading and more photos concerning the skinning part. 1/9/01

MichiganSportsman Copyrightę2001