To some, the fun is over when the fish are caught because cleaning fish is an unpleasant task. This attitude is most common among those who are not aware of the cleaning technique best suited for the fish species they have caught. Once proper techniques are learned and applied, the task becomes a small price to pay for the delicious eating that is yet to come.
The most common method of cleaning catfish is to make an incision around the body in back of the head, after which the skin and fins are pulled off with pliers or a skinning tool, the body is cut open, the entrails are removed, and the head and tail are cut off. The fish is then washed, dipped in batter, and fried. The bones remain intact, but it is an easy matter to pick large pieces of meat off large bones.
Other fish species can be scaled with a teaspoon or scaling tool and then cleaned much like catfish. The problem is that most people don’t like to pick through small bones of several small fish to find small pieces of meat. Filleting is thus a much preferred method of cleaning for most fish besides catfish and even catfish lend themselves well to filleting.
Without question, filleting is the most efficient method of cleaning fish. The traditional tool for filleting fish is the flexible, thin-bladed, razor sharp fillet knife. An electric knife, once mastered, can greatly speed fish cleaning.
There are two types of electric knives on the market. One has a straight handle with a trigger on the bottom operated by the forefinger. The second type has a large moon-shaped handle with a trigger button on top operated by the thumb. The knife with a straight handle allows for better leverage on the blade and works much better for filleting than the other model.
To fillet a fish using either a fillet knife or an electric knife, the angler should grasp his fish by the head with one hand and lay it on one side. A vertical incision is then made just behind the gill cover from the nape of the neck to the belly, down to the backbone. The knife is then run horizontally along the backbone, cutting through the ribs. Just before the knife reaches the tail, the fillet is flipped off the carcass, and the skin is sliced off the meat by pressing the knife blade flat on the cleaning surface as the cut proceeds toward the ribs. The ribs are then cut from the fillet. This process is then applied to the other side.
This conventional filleting technique works especially well on large fish such as bass or walleye. For panfish like crappie, and particularly bluegills, there is yet another approach. The first step is to scale both sides of the fish thoroughly. The fish is then dipped in a bucket of clean water to remove loose scales and mucous. A small fillet knife is inserted into the nape of the neck. The knife is run along the top edge of the ribs next to the bones which branch off the spine. After the knife has passed by the ribs, the cut proceeds toward the belly with the tip of the knife exiting the fish at the front edge of the anal fin. The cut continues all the way out to the tail. A vertical incision is then made just behind the gill cover and the fillet is pulled and sliced off the ribs. The fillet is separated from the carcass along the belly by cutting from the vertical incision made previously to the front of the anal fin. The fish is then flipped over and the cutting process is repeated on the other side.
By leaving the skin intact, the fillet holds together better, fries up crisper, and has more flavor. In addition, cutting along the outside of the ribs and then out at the bottom of the fish salvages a bit more meat along the belly. This area is discarded when ribs are cut out in the conventional method. The conventional method also wastes some meat near the tail. In both areas there isn’t much wasted using the conventional method, but every little bit counts, especially when cleaning fish as small and as good tasting as bluegills.