A person holding a fish in a net, while in a creek.

How To Clean a Fish

There’s no better backcountry meal than a fish you caught in the lake or stream right next to camp.

Or maybe you just want to savor a local catch, cooking it up for dinner at home. Either way, the next step after landing the fish (assuming you’re abiding by local regulations allowing you to keep it) is to gut it. Do this as quickly as possible if you don’t plan on keeping the fish alive (in a live well, cooler or bucket, or stringer), as a dead fish will spoil in just hours. Always head to the water with the right equipment to clean your fish there—and be ready to use it once you’ve decided to take the fish home. 

What You Need

There’s three critical elements here: sharp blade, work surface, fresh water. In the backcountry, cleaning a fish can be accomplished with a single (ideally non-serrated) knife, plus a clean, flat rock, and the nearby body of water. At many parks where fishing is allowed, you’re likely to find a dedicated cleaning station (look near the bathrooms), featuring a table with running water and a cutting surface, which makes it easy to rinse the fish and dispose of the entrails. If you’re doing this on a picnic table, think about packing some newspapers or paper towels to keep things clean. A cutting board would also be useful. If you’re planning to do more fishing, bring a zip-top, freezer-size bag and a cooler with ice to keep the cleaned fish cold until you can get it into a refrigerator. (In the backcountry, the water you’re fishing might be cold enough for placing the bagged fish until you’re ready to cook). 

Scale the Fish

Nobody wants to eat scales. Most fish have them and they’re easiest to remove when the fish is still whole. Wait much later and you’ll almost certainly end up with scales in your meal. (For fish with tough skin rather than scales, like catfish, make a shallow incision along the fish’s back and peel the skin away.)

  1. Lay your fish flat on one side. 
  2. Grab the tail with your non-dominant hand and a dedicated fish scaler or a knife in the other. If you’re using your fillet knife, try just using the blunt back side, or use a butter knife, and scrape from tail to head in short, quick motions. Expect scales to go flying. Scrape until the fish is smooth. 
  3. Flip the fish over and scale the other side. 
  4. Rinse the fish and work surface thoroughly to make sure all the loose scales are gone. Pat the fish dry. 
A man cuts a fresh fish open Photo: Roger

Clean Your Fish

Gut-check time.

  1. Place your fish back on the work surface on its side and hold it either by the tail or by its bottom jaw. Look along the fish’s underside for its anus: a small opening near where the tail meets the body (in front of the ventral fin). Insert a sharp knife here and cut along the belly, toward the head. Stop at the base of the gills. Keep your knife shallow as you do this: You only need to cut the skin. Cutting too deep will slice open the organs you’re hoping to remove, making a mess and potentially even spoiling the meat. 
  2. Place a finger in the fish’s mouth and push down on its lower jaw: Look for thin skin behind and under the bottom jaw and slice them both, creating a V behind the fish’s jawbone. 
  3. Grab ahold of the V, through the throat and gills, and pull quickly down toward the tail. If you did it right, the fish’s gills and pectoral fins should come out connected to most of the guts. If not, just open up the fish’s belly and pull out all the guts. Pull out anything that isn’t meat or bones. 
  4. Look for a red line running along the spine at the back of the cavity. That’s the fish’s kidney and forgetting it’s in there can spoil the meat. Run your fingernail along it from the head to the tail, squeezing out all the blood. 
  5. If you want, remove the head. (Trout are often cooked with the heads on and contain some valuable meat.) Bend it backward to snap the spine then cut it away. 
  6. Rinse your fish thoroughly, inside and out. Make sure there is no blood or guts left then dry the fish with a paper towel. Place it inside a zip-top bag and refrigerate or freeze as soon as possible until you’re ready to cook it. 

Once your fish is cleaned, you’re going to be left with some cleanup. Check local regulations to find out exactly what to do with the leftover guts. You can often drop them into deep or moving water (not right near shoreline) or throw them in the trash. Clean off your work area and wash your hands with soap and water. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.