Learning how to clean a fish is a valuable skill for any angler. There are few meals more satisfying than a fresh-caught, home-cooked fish dish, especially when you’re the one who caught it. The only problem is that preparing fresh-caught fish is much different than cooking one bought from the store. So if you’re looking at a fresh catch and wondering how to clean it, you’re in the right place.

We’re going to teach you how to remove the scales and guts. We’ll also show you how to cut your fish into fillets or steak pieces, depending on the meal you’re preparing. By the end of this tutorial, you’ll have confidence in your ability to clean your next catch.

What you’ll need

Before you begin learning how to clean a fish, you should have a few items handy to help make the process faster, easier, and cleaner.

  1. Fillet knife
  2. Cleaver or chef’s knife
  3. Sharpening stone
  4. Scaling brush, butter knife, or spoon
  5. Cutting board
  6. Bucket (or deep sink)
  7. Fresh water (hose, faucet, or water bottle)
  8. Pliers (optional)
  9. Paper towel
  10. Plastic bag

How to scale a fish

Many species have layers of hard, flaky scales. The scales won’t soften with most cooking methods, making scaling (removing scales) the fish an important first task.

scaling a fish on a cutting board

Required items:

  • Fresh water (hose, faucet, or water bottle)
  • Paper towel
  • Scaling brush, butter knife, or spoon
  • Bucket (or deep sink)
  • Pliers (optional)

Step 1: Rinse

Most fish have a slimy coating that makes them difficult to hold in place. Rinsing in fresh water dispensed from a hose faucet or water bottle makes them easier to work with.

To rinse your fish, place it underneath the water flow and slowly rotate it so all sides receive exposure. After a quick (15-30 seconds) rinse, slide your hand along its side, making sure to move with the grain of the scales. If it no longer feels slimy, you can dry it with a paper towel. Keep in mind, bigger fish and slimier species will require a longer rinse time.

Step 2: Prepare your work area

Scaling is a messy task. Even small fish have a bunch of scales, and once you start scraping, they’ll fly all over the place. We highly recommend setting up your work area outdoors to reduce clean-up time. If you’re unable to work outdoors, be sure to work over flat, non-porous surfaces that you can easily wipe down.

A bucket or deep sink is the ideal spot to scale. The sides block flying scales, containing the mess within the bucket or sink, making for easier cleanup.

Step 3: Hold the tail in place

You’ll need a secure hold on the tail to scrape off the scales efficiently. You can accomplish this by firmly pressing the tail against the bottom or the side of the bucket or sink. Alternatively, you can use a set of pliers to grab the tail and hold it in place.

Step 4: Scrape against the grain

Once you have a secure hold on the tail within your bucket or sink, you can then use a scraping brush, butter knife, or spoon to remove the scales.

You need to scrape against the grain of the scales. So start at the tail and move forward towards the head. Make short, firm scrapes with your utensil until the scales are completely removed from the upward-facing side. Turn the fish over and repeat steps three and four.

How to gut a fish

After you’re done scaling the fish, the next step in learning how to clean a fish is gutting it.

The guts contain a stomach, kidney, heart, intestines, and other organs— all of which must be removed before cooking. Not only are the guts very unappetizing, they also host harmful bacteria which can spread to the meat and make you sick if not removed. This makes it critical to gut the fish as soon as possible after catching.

Let’s walk through the steps involved with gutting a fish.

gutting a fish while by a boat standing in the water

Required items:

  • Fillet knife
  • Sharpening stone
  • Cutting board
  • Plastic bag
  • Fresh water

Step 1: Prepare your work area

You should gut your fish on a hard surface, ideally a cutting board. Additionally, you’ll want to have a sharp fillet knife ready for cutting and a plastic bag to dispose of the guts.

Step 2: Position and hold the fish

Place the fish on its side with the stomach facing towards you. Place your non-dominant hand along the length of the fish and firmly hold it down on the cutting board.

Step 3: Slice the fish’s stomach

Using the fillet knife, carefully slice the fish along its stomach from just below the chin down to the anal fin. Try your best to cut evenly down the middle (between the fins) and make the slice as shallow as possible to prevent piercing organs.

Step 4: Slice the fish’s head

Make a vertical cut just behind the pectoral fin, extending from the stomach slice to the spine. Flip the fish to the opposite side and make an identical cut.

Use your knife to break the spine where the two vertical cuts meet. This may require some force and a sharp knife. So be sure to use your sharpening stone to make the cut easier.

There should now be open flaps on either side that you can pull back to reveal the guts.

Step 5: Remove the head and guts

Grab the head of the fish with one hand and one of the gut flaps with the other. Pull the head down and back towards the stomach slice while opening the flaps. As you pull the head down and back, the guts should pull out along with it. Dispose of the head and guts in the plastic bag.

Use your fingers to scoop out any guts left inside the fish. Then rinse the open cavity with fresh water to wash out the gut residue.

What to do with the parts you won’t eat?

Getting rid of the fish parts you don’t eat can present a problem. When left in the trash for a while, they’ll begin to smell. Not only is this smell incredibly unpleasant for you and your neighbors, it can also attract animals, flies, and other bugs looking to scavenge the leftovers.

Here are a few ways to properly dispose of fish guts:

  • Double (or triple) bag the leftovers and store them in the freezer until trash day
  • Burn them in a fire
  • Make a fertilizer/compost for your garden
  • Make fish stock

How to fillet a fish

Once you’ve scaled and gutted your fish, you’re ready to fillet it. Some fish species are easier to fillet than others, and it’s essential to keep in mind that this is a precision cutting skill you’ll need to practice. When you’re first learning how to clean a fish, don’t expect perfection and remember that, over time, you’ll get faster and leave less meat on the bone.

fish fillet at fish market

Required items:

  • Fillet knife
  • Sharpening stone
  • Cutting board

Step 1: Prepare your work area

Filleting a fish is easiest on a hard, flat surface like a cutting board. The task will also be much easier and more efficient with a razor-sharp fillet knife. We recommend taking the time to sharpen your blade with a sharpening stone every time you fillet a fish.

Step 2: Make a vertical cut behind the head

If you gutted the fish following our recommendations, you can ignore this step because you’ve already made this cut when you removed the head and guts simultaneously.

If you chose not to remove the head, you’ll need to make a vertical cut just behind the fish’s pectoral fin, slicing from stomach to spine.

Step 3:  Slice along the spine

The vertical cut behind the pectoral fin will reveal the spine. Slice the fish along the spine to expose the vertebrae. Carefully back towards the tail and down to the stomach, keeping your blade as flat and flush with the spine/vertebrae as possible. The fish’s meat will separate from the bones as you work the blade backward and down.

Flip the fish over and repeat this step on the opposite side.

Step 4: Remove excess bones

After removing the fillet from both sides of the fish carcass, there are some extra parts you’ll want to remove. The size and location of the bones will vary based on fish species, but there are a few parts of the fillet where it’s common to find these excess parts.

There’s often a line of small bones left on the fillet from the vertebrae. Sometimes you can pull them out by hand. However, if that’s not possible, you can cut them out. To do this, make two lengthwise cuts on either side of the bone line that meets in a V shape. Then remove the strip of meat that contains the bones.

You’ll want to cut off a section of the fillet that contains ribs and cloudy white skin. You’ll find this section close to the stomach side of the fillet.

Step 5: Remove the skin (optional)

The skin of most fish is edible when properly cooked. So this is an optional step many people take who don’t like the texture or look of the skin on their fillet.

To remove the skin from the fillet, you must create a thin slice between the meat and the skin and run the blade carefully between the two. This will peel the skin off and you’ll be left with a bare fish fillet.

How to steak a fish

Creating steaks out of your fish is an excellent alternative to cutting a fillet. If you’ve already followed the steps to scale and gut your fish, you’re ready to learn how to clean your fish by cutting it into steaks.

steaking a fish on a wood cutting board

Required items:

  • Cleaver or chef’s knife
  • Sharpening stone
  • Cutting board

Step 1: Prepare your work area

Have a cutting board and a sharp cleaver or chef’s knife ready to cut the fish. You’ll be cutting directly through the vertebrae, so you should sharpen your knife with a sharpening stone to make the cut easier.

Step 2: Cut off the head

If you’ve gutted your fishing using the head removal technique that we recommend, you’ve already made this cut, and you can move onto the next step. If you haven’t removed the head, cut vertically behind the pectoral fin from the stomach to the spine, chopping off the head of the fish.

Step 3: Cut vertical lines down the length

Cut the fish from spine to stomach in roughly one-inch strips. You’ll have to break the vertebrae, which can be a bit difficult depending on the species of fish. Use the heel end of your sharpened cleaver/chef’s knife to make the cut easier.

After you’ve cut your steaks, clean the outsides of each piece by cutting off any fins or spines.


The ability to cook what you catch is a crucial skill for any angler. It means you can provide food for your friends, family, and yourself, which is a great feeling. We hope you’ve enjoyed this tutorial on how to clean a fish and that you now have a better understanding of gutting, scaling, and preparing fish. Let us know what you think in the comments section, and if you have a friend who would find this post useful, be sure to share it with them.