Cleaning Fish

Cleaning fish with care and precision is a skill born of knowledge and practice. The product you bring to the kitchen affects what appears on the table. A one-pound walleye carefully filleted produces two fillets each weighing about 4 ounces. Lack of precision might reduce those fillets to 3.5 ounces each, a waste.


The tools needed to clean fish successfully depend on the chosen cleaning method. The skillful fish cleaner knows a variety of methods and uses them depending on the chosen recipe.

At the cleaning station should be at least one knife and perhaps several; a fish-dispatching dowel; a bowl of fresh water and ice; and towels to keep the station clean. A sharpening stone and steel should be kept handy too, in case needed. A scaling tool should be on hand, as well as a fish skinner. Many anglers prefer to use an electric knife to fillet fish. We prefer traditional knives but would use an electric knife if the cleaning detail were particularly large.

Using a Knife

Knives are built to function like the muscles in your body. Muscular movement begins with larger muscles and progresses to smaller muscles or muscle groups. A hook-set while fishing, for example, begins with the large leg, butt, and back muscles. Then in rapid succession, smaller shoulder and upper arm muscles work and quickly pass the action to the small muscles in the lower arm, hand, and fingers.

Bigger muscles start the work; finer muscles finish it. Larger muscles are for larger, coarser tasks; finer muscles are for smaller, finer tasks. So it is with the design and use of a knife. The thicker butt is designed to handle coarse work, while the finer tip is for finishing work.

Fillet knives should have a heavier butt, tapering progressively into a small point. Fillet knives that taper less progressively are designed for heavier fillet work. 


At the cleaning table, cleanliness is important. Have ice available for fish that have already been cleaned and to chill fillets from fish still alive when they reach the cleaning table. To fillet our catch, we need:

  1. Cleaning utensils, including fillet knives and sharpening tools; a fish-dispatching dowel; and a bowl of cold water (add ice) to soak fillets for a short time to remove blood and bacteria.
  2. Clean paper towels for wiping slime from fish and keeping the fillet board clean. Pat fillets dry after they've soaked if you don't plan to freeze them.

    Cleaning Fish Procedure

    (1) If fish are alive, they should dispatched them with a sharp blow to the head with the dowel, just behind the eyes. The dowel is a 15-inch length of one-inch dowel or the handle from a hammer—available in hardware stores.

    (2) Remove the fillets. Although it's often difficult and not critical, try not to rupture the digestive tract with your knife.

    (3) Place fillets in cold water to help remove blood and bacteria. With lean fish such as catfish, pike, or walleyes, an option is to add 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

    (4) Discard the carcass, wipe the board and knife clean, and start on another fish. Replace the water in the bowl when it begins to thicken with fish juices. 

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