Cleaning or filleting fish is an easy task once you know the basic steps and some important focus areas. In general, the procedure can be simplified as: 1. get the guts out, and 2. fillet the meat off. When tackling any fish those two steps are the fundamentals. Since fish come in many different shapes and sizes, the general process follows the fundamentals but there are some specific measures for each fish type that make the process alot easier. In this article I’ll explain the key points to cleaning and filleting your catch. For clear illustration of the techniques I’ve pre-screened and selected some good video clips to highlight the important focus points that I am explaining in the article. Please enjoy the article and let me know any comments or recommendations you may have on cleaning or filleting your catch, in the comments section at the bottom of the article.
The right knife for the job is one of the most important considerations. There are alot of low-cost fishing knives available that can do the job just fine but with an understanding of what all knives are out there and how they can affect the job, the angler can gain advantages in terms of processing speed and effectiveness. Effectiveness in fish cleaning means getting more meat off the fillets.
When I’m tackling a small trout sized fish then any fillet knife will do. They are commonly available for $20 and generally come with a 7″ blade. The handles are plastic, blade stainless, and they generally come with a sheath and some even with a pull through sharpener. For the price this is a good setup for smaller fish because knives sometimes fall overboard.
For larger fish this is where the size and function of the knife becomes important. For filleting 50# chinook salmon, lingcod, or tuna, a 7″ filleting knife can be used but a larger and stiffer blade will make it easier to cut clean through the fish in 1 stroke, and to cut through the larger bones including the spine when removing the head and the rib bones when removing the fillet. Some good knives for this are in the 9″-11″ length range. These knives are often manufactured with a higher quality steel, and can have more ergonomic grips, some with slime proof anti-slip handles.
For halibut, part of the trick is to flex the knife blade. This requires a softer blade that will bend when a light torque is applied. Good knives for halibut are either 7″ or 9″ filleting knives that are flexible. Filleting a halibut does not require cutting through the spine or any bones at all so a strong knife is not required. Halibut knives are designed around finesse.
Having a selection of knives of different lengths and thicknesses is valuable that way you can choose the specific knife for the specific application.
The best thing an angler can do is become proficient at knife sharpening. All anglers will recognize that when their knife was brand new it cut amazingly and the fish cleaning was simple. Over time as the knife cuts bones or digs into the cutting board, it becomes dull and the effort, time, and frustration required to fillet the fish significantly increases. To get the best results anglers should frequently sharpen knives, and it does not take very much time at all.
There are all sorts of knife sharpeners out there and they all have unique differences. All sorts of people have their own preferences but the ones that I recommend for anglers are the pull-through kind. I recommend them because they are generally safe to operate, and they are easy to align and this ensures that both sides of the knife receive the same angle and the same amount of material removed per pull. Some people will not want to use very expensive knives on pull-through sharpeners, but I believe that for fishing knives they are ideal. When purchasing look at the knife sharpener specifically focus on how you have to grip it with your hand and what the probability is that you will cut yourself. Some are intended to be freely held in your hands, and have guards and others are designed to be pressed firmly down on a tabletop and then pull the knife through. I like the ones that go firmly on the table because they are safer in boats that are rocking back and forth. You can press it down in the side of the hull for stability and quickly sharpen the knife. This is also useful for your guests they can learn and become proficient knife sharpeners quickly with minimal risk.
With a pull through sharpener, it should only take 2-3 pulls to make a significant improvement to any fish knife. I recommend that whenever your crew is fishing and not in the immediate action, that someone focusses on touching up the knives. This way they are always ready. If you can cut down the time required to clean your catch at the end of the day by having good sharp knives ready, then this means that you can spend more time on the water catching fish in the first place.
Cleaning tables are useful for doing fish because they generally raise the working surface and make it more comfortable. In absence of a board fish can be cleaned on the floor of the boat (washdown pump recommended), on the dock, on the ground, etc. Boat boards are often easily made from starboard which is a high density plastic material. Starboard is very easy to work with standard woodworking tools and many recreational boaters can make one easily.
Some anglers will use an outdoor rug or astroturf type material to line on top of the cleaning table. This has two purposes, it helps keep the fish from sliding all around on the table as the boat rocks, and, it prolongs the sharpness of the knife because it is not cutting into the hard surface. This is especially valuable with aluminum cleaning tables. To clean the rug an effective technique is to cut a hole in one side of it so that a rope can be easily tied or clipped, then, toss it overboard while trolling and tie it off to a boat cleat. This will drag and wash the rug for half an hour and it will be clean.
For all fish this is a very important step and one that is frequently not done because of the mess it makes. Bleeding the catch is quick and easy and will ensure the highest quality meat. Fishy flavour is a big turnoff to alot of people and immediately bleeding a fish is one of the techniques to improving the quality of the fish when it is served on the dinner table.
To bleed a salmon, use your knife to cut some of the gills. The fish will bleed out quickly and then it will be done. You can do this onboard your boat, or you can tie a rope to the fish and toss it overboard to bleed out in the water.
For a halibut, you can cut the gills and you can also cut through the major artery in the tail. To cut the tail artery cut through the meat at the base of the tail on the dark side (do not cut the white side it messes up your photography later). Cut right down to the spine but not through the spine. Then take the tail and snap the spine bone and it should start bleeding like crazy. On a large halibut this is a good one to tie off and let bleed out of the boat because there is a lot of blood and it can congeal and this will temporarlily plug up your deck drains. If you get alot of conjealed blood plugging your deck drains you can clean it out by placing the nozzle of the washdown hose directly into the deck drain and then blowing through the blood.
To clean a salmon the general premise is to simply get the guts out. There are different techniques that can be used to do this and they are used for different reasons. The basic approach is as below:
A youtube video from an alaska troller shows the basic steps to clean a salmon. Note the sharpness of the knife and in this case he is using a cleaning jig that orients the fish with its belly upwards, a handy feature for quickly processing fish. His knife is sharp and its blade is relatively short. The back of the knife has the spoon which is used to scoop out the kidney. The short blade is handy because you are at lower risk to cut yourself with the blade when you flip it over and spoon out the kidney.
A speed approach that I like that reduces the time per fish is as follows:
The speed approach is useful if you have a big haul of salmon and want to get through them quickly. It is not recommended if you have not already taken photographs of your catch or if you want to have opportunity to take a group shot at the end of the day with all the fish lined up, because, the head will be removed. This technique is shown in this video from Youtube. The fish is not a chromer but looking beyond the condition of the fish, the method used here is great. Note the value of the sharp and stiff blade to more easily cut through the spine behind the head. I do not cut the tail off so it can remain for species identification. If you’re going to be storing your fish in a cooler and cleaning them all at once at the end of the fishing trip be sure to bleed the fish before putting it on ice, by cutting the gills.
Salmon filleting can be done on fish with the guts in, or on a fish that has been cleaned previously. The approach is to put the knife in behind the head and push the blade along the spine backwards toward the tail, cutting through the rib bones. A sturdy blade is valuable it will make it easier to cut through the rib bones especially on larger fish. Also of critical importance is the length of the blade. On larger fish in the 30-60lb range the depth of the fillet (from belly to dorsal) can be quite deep and here is where a 9-11″ long blade proves its weight in gold. The longer blade will cut through in a single swipe. This is not only faster but the less hacking and cutting the less waste there will be. This youtube video shows very well the value of the longer blade and the amount of force that is required to quickly push the large and sharp knife through the fillets.
Since a halibut is significantly different shape and much larger size than the typical salmon, bass, or trout, the process to fillet this beast may not be immediately clear. Filleting a halibut is a very easy process once you understand the approach. In general, you will lie the fish on the table, cut two fillets from the white side, remove the halibut cheek, and then flip the fish over, remove 2 fillets from the dark side, remove the halibut cheek, and then toss the carcass or use it for crab bait.
Here is a video from Youtube showing how to fillet a 300lb alaskan halibut. People tend to be critical of videos like this and the performance of the individual but I like this video because it shows the important techniques. First that it is possible to do a fish on a boat and without any cleaning table. The washdown hose is handy to keep everything really clean. Rain pants are handy for working with any fish. The captains knife is clearly very sharp. I like how he smoothly traces around the entire fish to cut the skin and then proceeds to slice off the slabs. Last is to note that he did the entire fish in 4 minutes which is impressive.
The procedure to fillet a lingcod is the same as to fillet a salmon. A stiff and sharp knife is valuable for filleting a lingcod because the rib bones just behind the head are quite thick and it can take a bit of pressure on the knife to cut through them. Too thin a knife (ie halibut filleting knife) it will want to bend alot and will take more effort to get through the ribs. If your only doing one or two lings then any knife will suffice but if you’ve got a big haul of them then a more sturdy blade will cut down the overall cleaning time.
Once the fish has been cleaned it should be put on ice. Chipped ice can be worked into the body cavity and this will keep the fish cool all day. For fillets, placing ice directly on fillets can cause damage to the fillets. For this reason it is best to only clean the fish on the water and then put the cleaned fish on ice all day, then do the filleting at the end of the day and prior to freezing the meat.
To catch more fish you need to match the hatch. When cleaning your fish its important to check the stomach contents. This will show exactly what the fish is eating including species and size. Salmon can feed on different sizes of baitfish, and halibut or lingcod you may find all sorts of creatures including full size dungeoness crabs, and octopus. When you’re checking the stomach contents be careful not to get any digestive juices on the fish meat that you are keeping. A good idea is to finish filleting or cleaning the fish and then check the stomach contents.
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Writing about sportfishing for salmon, halibut, lingcod, rockfish, snapper, prawns, and crab, with tips and techniques to catch more fish by fine-tuning specific details.
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