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How to Properly Filet Your Fresh Catch

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

While fishing can be done purely for fun, traditionally, fishing is done with the intention of eating your catch. For this reason, even some of the most masterful fishermen may still be considered amateurs when it comes to preparing fish for consumption. Knowing the correct way to filet a fish once caught is extremely important, not only for ensuring that you are able to harvest a substantial and yummy cut of meat, but for making sure your meal doesn’t swim back upstream after digging in (food poisoning, we’re looking at you.)


Pre-Filet Cleaning


1. Bleeding out your fish should be done ASAP, before it even reaches your kitchen. Use a knife to make an incision above the fish's gills, then push the head backwards to break the backbone. After pulling some rope through its mouth and out its gills, allow the fish to bleed into the water for 2-3 minutes. This saves you a lot of mess when filleting later and will preserve the meat’s taste. After this, throw the fish on ice until you’re ready for the next steps.

Step 2 of Pre-Filet Cleaning: Descaling

2. Scrape the scales from your catch by using long strokes along the length of the fish with the back of a knife. If you prefer, however, skinning the fish will also serve to remove any scales, which can be performed after filleting. If you prefer to leave the scales on your filet, feel free to skip this step.

3. Using your knife, slice your fish open from tail to head and extract the innards with gloved hands. Afterwards, rinse the open cavity with cold water to ensure that your fish is completely cleaned out. Be sure to carefully sanitize your gutting area afterwards, as the risk of cross-contamination is high during this process.

4. Next, you’ll want to remove the head. Place the fish on one of its sides and use a chef's knife to chop the head off where it connects to the gills. Sever the head by cutting through the fish's backbone, which may require a little more force.


Filleting

Step 1 of Filleting: Fin Removal

1. With scissors, remove fins from the sides, top, and bottom of the fish’s body. This should be done before making cuts to improve precision and eliminate any pieces of the fish that may get in the way.


2. Run your filet knife down the fish's spine from tail to head. Use the fish’s backbone as a guide for your cut. Be sure to use smooth, gliding motions, rather than roughly sawing through.


3. Instead of running your knife directly through the ribs of the fish, you’ll want to glide your knife carefully along over them. Any bones you wish to remove can be done so in the next step. Repeat this process on the opposite side of the fish.

Post-Filet Cleaning


1. Use a big pair of tweezers or a boning knife to debone the filets. There is no way to completely prevent bones in your filets, but they may be removed by hand once the meat has been sliced away from the spine. Check for bones in the center of your filet, from the head to the tail end, and carefully pick them out with tweezers.

Step 2 of Post-Filet Cleaning: Skinning

2. Using a filet knife, skin the filet. Make an incision where the skin meets the flesh on the skin-side of the filet. Carefully slide your knife to the opposite end, gripping the skin tightly and pull it away as you cut.

3. Remove any extra abdominal fat. Depending on the species of fish, the amount of fat present may vary greatly. Tuna, swordfish, and herring, for example, have a notoriously high fat content while haddock, whiting and cod are typically much leaner.

4. Run the filet under water for a final rinse, and using a paper towel, dry the filet, being mindful not to leave any fibers on the filets. Then, place the meat on ice until ready to cook. If you are not going to consume the fish within two days, wrap it firmly in plastic wrap, place it in a Ziplock bag, and place it in the freezer. The fish will keep in the freezer for 2 to 3 months.

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