Few things in life are as enjoyable as reeling in a big fish, whether it’s a trout on the river or yellowtail off the coast. While most anglers simply enjoy the thrill and toss their catch back into the water, the most satisfaction comes when you get to eat a freshly caught fish.
When you catch smaller fish, it’s almost never worth it to fillet them. Scaling them and cooking them whole is the way to go.
But learning to filet a fish is important if you plan to bring home larger species of fish. Cooking up a filet of salmon, tuna, trout, or any number of saltwater species is a valuable skill to have.
Keep reading below to learn how to filet a fish with ease so that you can cook and enjoy fresh fish more often.
Get the Right Gear
The first and most important step to filet a fish is to buy the right gear for the job. The most important is a proper filet knife. You cannot use any other type of knife unless you want to do a terrible job and put for fingers at risk.
Fillet knives have elongated blades. They are curved. And they are very thin, make sure they can bend and maneuver around fish bones with ease.
They also have to be extremely sharp, in order to cut through the flesh without having to push too hard. This keeps your filets in good condition, without having to saw back and forth and mess up your filet.
Most fishermen who like to cook their catch will buy a knife set that has different sized-blades for different sized fish.
Aside from a quality knife or two, you’ll want good cutting boards. You can descale a fish using any number of kitchen utensils, like a spoon or the back of the knife. But spending a couple of bucks on a fish descaler is worth it.
Or, if you cook a lot of fish, investing in an electric fish descaler will be one of the best investments you make. You can remove all of the scales in seconds with minimal effort.
If you plan to freeze some of your fillets for later, you’ll want to have a vacuum sealer. These are quite affordable and will seal each fillet in plastic, sucking out all air and excess moisture.
Prep the Fish After Catching It
Let’s rewind a bit. If you want your fish to taste good, you need to handle it properly from the moment you catch it. First off, it’s best to kill the fish right away, as opposed to letting it suffocate in the cooler.
Killing it quickly will stop adrenaline from surging throughout the fish, which can affect the quality of the meat.
You also want to bleed the fish right away to keep the blood out of the meat while you finish your day of fishing. To bleed the fish, just insert a small, sharp knife under the gill plate and make a cutting motion. Also, pull the head back to snap the spinal cord.
Place the fish into the water to let the blood drain out, either in a catch well, cooler, or on a stringer in the lake.
By removing the blood now, filleting a fish later will be much cleaner and easier.
Gut the Fish
You need to remove the fish’s cuts before you start filleting the fish. Otherwise, you run the risk of bursting the stomach and spilling its contents on your fresh meat.
You can either gut the fish in the water after you catch it, or do it at home before filleting it.
To remove the guts, insert a sharp knife on the bottom of the fish, right at the tail. Slide it along the body towards the head.
Stick your hand inside to pull out the entrails in one strong swipe motion and toss them into the trash. Rinse out the cavity to remove any other remains.
Learning to Fillet a Fish
With blood drained, scales taken off, and guts removed, you’re ready to fillet your fish and get it ready to cook.
The easiest way to fillet a fish is to start by inserting your knife under the fin (just behind the gills). Cut in at an angle to get through the meat, but don’t go too far that you cut into the ribcage.
With the knife inserted, turn it and start moving it away from the head and towards the tail. The goal is to cut as close to the bone as you can to get the most meat.
So use the ribcage as a guide for your knife. Just follow the bones as you make your way to the tail.
Before you completely sever the fillet from the body, remove the knife. If you want to remove the skin from the fillet, now is the time to do it.
Flip the fillet so that the skin is down against the cutting board, but still attached to the body. Starting from the tail, gently insert your knife between the meat and the skin, and slide it across to separate the fillet from the skin.
Turn the fish over and repeat the process for the other fillet.
It takes practice to efficiently remove fillets without damaging them. It’s also quite a bit different from smaller fish to larger fish.
Removing Bones from Your Fillet
Regardless of how good your filleting skills are, you’re going to be left with the pin bones running through the center of your meat.
Some people will use sturdy tweezers to pull them out before cooking. Others will make an additional cut, cutting out the long section of bones.
On smaller fish, the bones soften while cooking and you might not mind eating them, or at least picking them out of your teeth.
Catch and Cook Today
It’s not that hard to fillet a fish. Like almost any skill, it’s one that needs to be practiced before it becomes second nature.
After a few fish, though, you’ll discover the fastest way to filet a fish for your preferred species.
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