How to Clean and Cook Fish – an Anglers Guide!

how to clean and cook fish

How to clean and cook fish – an Anglers Guide!

This article will cover how to clean and cook fish. Properly handling and caring for a fish as soon as it is caught will have a positive effect on the quality of the meal. Anglers have several options when it comes to taking care of fish that are destined for the dinner table. These different options will be covered along with recommendations from Lauren and Capt Jim.

Caring for fish that are going to be kept to eat

Anglers have several options when it comes to keeping fish. These include coolers or fish boxes with ice, livewells, stringers, and creels. All of them will suffice, though some options are better than others.


Back in the day, anglers would put fish on a stringer. This is a length of rope with a ring on one end and a spike on the other. The spike is pushed through the mouth of the fish and then out the gill. The spike then runs through the ring and the fish is secured. The spike is stuck in the ground or tied to something. Other fish can be easily added. The stringer is then placed in the water, where the fish remain alive until the end of the trip. This type of stringer is mostly used with panfish.

clean and cook fish

Anglers can also use metal stringers. These have larger clips on them. A fish is added to the stringer by opening the clip and pushing it through the lower lip and securing the clip. Once again, the fish are placed in the water to remain alive. These metal stringers work better on larger fish.

Stringers are a fairly easy way to keep fish alive until it is time to clean them. However, they have their limitations. They work fine in cool water, but fish will not live long in warmer water. Also, when anglers move to another spot, the fish are either placed in the bottom of the boat or carried along. The fish will die during this time period and putting dead fish back in 80 degree water does them no good at all.


how to clean and cook fish

Most fishing boats have livewells built in to them. They have strong pumps which will recirculate and aerate the water. They will keep most fish alive all day long. Livewells are an excellent option to hold that are going to be kept to eat. They also give anglers the option of culling fish and replacing them if a better candidate is caught. Also, if the bite is tough and there isn’t enough for a meal, anglers can release the ones in the well.


Creels are wicker baskets that are used by anglers fishing for trout in rivers. They are still used today and a trout will stay fresh for several hours with moist grass. Creels are mainly used due to their portability; it just isn’t practical to hike and walk through streams carrying a big cooler.

Coolers with ice

fish in cooler

The best option for fish that are going to be kept is to get them on ice as soon as possible. This is what both Lauren and Capt Jim advise. It is best to “dispatch” the fish with a sharp blow between the eyes. A fish flopping around in a cooler or fish box not only makes a lot of noise which can shut down the bite, it bruises and damages the flesh. The optimum situation is to have a little water or a “slurry” at the bottom. This will completely encase the fish in very cold water.

Ice will stiffen up the fish, making it easier to clean along with keeping the meat as fresh as possible. In fact, Capt Jim often lets his fish sit in the cooler overnight after a day of fishing, then cleans the fish the next morning. They are stiff as a board and very easy to clean. It keeps the blood and mess to a minimum as well.

Anglers who keep fish in a livewell can use ice as well. Once enough for a meal is secured, anglers can remove the fish and ice them down. The well can also be emptied and ice dumped on top of them. Live fish can certainly be cleaned, but it is so much easier when they are chilled. A live fish wiggling around can result in the person cleaning it cutting themselves, not to mention the extra blood and mess.

Cleaning and filleting fish

how to clean and cook fish

Once the fish are caught and properly taken care of, it is time to clean them. Anglers have two basic choices when it comes to that; filleting and dressing whole. Both Lauren and Jim prefer a skinless fish fillet, but that is just a personal choice. Many people like the crunch of the skin as well as the presentation.

There are a few basic rules and safety practices when it comes to cleaning fish. A sharp knife is crucial, this can not be overstated! There is a huge difference between cutting the flesh and ripping it. Most fillet knives are slender and bend a bit. This allows them to follow along the backbone. Anglers should sharpen the knife before and during the cleaning, if needed. Smooth slices works better than sawing back and forth. Anglers should never cut towards their body, always cut away in case the knife slips.

Filleting a fish

Filleting a fish is pretty straightforward and results in a boneless fillet that can be prepared in many different ways. The one thing that does complicate it a bit is that not all fish are anatomically the same. Some fish such as freshwater trout have “pin bones”. Other species including walleye have a “Y bone”. Then there are odd fish like flounder, which are completely different.

cleaning fish

Most fish are filleted the same way. If the skin is going to be left on, the fish should be scaled first. This can be done with a scaling tool, but a metal spoon will also work. The fish in laid on it’s side with the stomach facing the person filleting the fish. The knife is placed under the pectoral fin and angled up to the head of the fish, just behind the gill. The first cut is made along this line, straight through the fish, down to the backbone.

cleaning fish

The knife is then turned 90 degrees and with the blade against the backbone, a cut is made lengthwise down the body.

how to clean and cook fish

One little trick that Capt Jim learned is if the fish is going to be skinned, the cut should stop right at the tail, but not all the way through. This makes removing the skin much easier as the angler has something to grasp on to. The fillet is then flipped over. With the knife blade pressing down and held at a 45 degree angle, the skin is pulled and will come right off. The angler is left with a nice fillet with very little waste.

cleaning fish

There is another method used to fillet a fish. The first cut is the same. Once done, the fish is flipped around, with the back now facing the person cleaning the fish. The knife is then worked along the backbone, down to the tail. Reversing the fish like this can save a little meat at the top of the backbone. It really just is a matter of preference.

filleting a fish

Once the fillet is cut off of the fish, the rib bones need to be trimmed off. The knife is placed under the bones and run at an angle just below the bones to save as much meat as possible. There is often a little bone left in the middle, cutting a little “V” out will usually remove it. It is always recommended to feel along the areas where bones were removed to ensure that they are all gone. Nothing ruins a great fish meal more than getting a small bone stick in someone’s mouth!

Dressing a fish whole

Some anglers prefer to cook their fish whole, and there is nothing wrong with that. It makes for an impressive presentation and the bones can add moisture and flavor. The head can be left on or removed. A whole fish requires some effort to clean, but again, it is a personal choice. The person eating it will have to work around the bones as well.

whole fish

The first order of business is to scale the fish. This is done by scraping them off, going from the tail to the head, pulling them off backwards. A scaling tool can be used, but a large spoon will do the job as well. This can be messy and should be done outdoors or in a deep sink.

If the head is going to be removed, that is done next. The cut should be similar to the first cut when filleting, except it goes all the way through the bone. On larger fish, it is often necessary to flip the fish over, cut the opposite side, and the twist the head off by hand. If the head is left on, the gills should be cut out.

The entrails must be removed. In both cases of the fish head being on or off, the tip of the knife is inserted in the anus and a slice is made forward. If the head is removed, the cut will extend to the cavity opening. On whole fish, the cut goes forward then out behind the gills. Fingers are used to pull out all of the entrails. The cavity is then thoroughly washed.

More fish cleaning tips

There are a couple of other things to mention when discussing fish cleaning and preparation. There are a few fish that are often cut into steaks and served that way. This is commonly done with larger fish. These include sharks, swordfish, and king mackerel in saltwater and salmon and larger trout in freshwater.

cleaning and cooking fish

The cavity is cleaned and the fish is cut crosswise into the desired thickness, usually around 1 1/2”. This is a very easy way to clean a fish and cook a fish. It makes for an interesting presentation, though the bones are still present. However, these are large bones and are easily avoided when eaten.

Freshwater trout are a popular fish and are good to eat. However, they have very thin “pin bones” which can be troublesome to deal with. On larger trout, they can be removed with tweezers. The line of bones can be cut out as well. On smaller trout, they will often just cook down and not be a problem. Trout are often “butterflied” which offers an excellent presentation, but is a bit complicated.

Some members of the pike family have “Y” bones. The most notable species in this family is walleye, which is arguable the finest tasting freshwater fish that swims. The fish is filleted like any other, but there will be a line of bones. These are easily cut out. One trick is to make a little cut on either side of the bones then simply pull the fillet off. Do this on both sides and the pieces of fish are ready to go!

Cooking freshly caught fish

Now that the fish are cleaned and properly prepared, it is time to start planning the meal. Anglers and cooks have many options when it comes to cooking the fish. To some degree, the type of fish will dictate the cooking method used and even the side dishes that accompany and accentuate the fish.

cooking fish

One of the biggest mistakes that are made when preparing fish is over-cooking them! This is very easy to do for a couple of reasons. Thin fillets will cook quickly and will go from raw to over cooked in a couple of minutes. Also, larger fish will continue to cook due to residual heat. One great tip is to plan the meal so that the fish is the last component to be served. This will limit the over cooking due to residual heat from cooking.

Capt Jim likes the “fork” method to determine when a piece of fish is properly cooked. When a fork is inserted and the fish is done, the fork will easily slide through the meat. When it is still a bit raw, there will be some resistance. The best approach is to check the fish before it is done, then every minute or so after. The timing can be that crucial! Fish will go from perfect to over cooked in a very short amount of time!

Fish can be generally put into several categories. For the purposes of this article, the species of fish that are caught by anglers will be highlighted. These categories are lean white fish, oily fish, and trout and salmon.

Different types of fish fillets

Most fish fall into the lean white fish categories. These are the most preferred fish to eat by most people, especially those that do not like stronger tasting fish. Lean white fish are also the most versatile fish and can be cooked using every method. Finally, these fish keep longer before the flavor becomes too strong.

cleaning fish

Lean white fish

The most popular and tasty lean white fish that freshwater anglers catch are crappie, bluegill and panfish, walleye, bass, yellow perch, catfish species, and striped bass. Very few of these fish are available for commercial sale. Probably the most popular commercial freshwater lean white fish is tilapia.

Saltwater anglers have many options as well when it comes to lean white fish. These include speckled trout (spotted sea trout), snapper, grouper, flounder and fluke, halibut, red drum (redfish), striped bass, sea bass, tautog, sheepshead and other porgies, whiting, cod, haddock, and sharks. Unlike freshwater fish species, many of these are commercially available.

walleye to eat

Lean white fish can be cooked in every way imaginable. They are by far the best choice for frying and pan sauteing. They do well baked and broiled, though they will dry out. Lean fish are excellent grilled and poached as well. They are not the best option for smoking or for making sushi.

Fish with natural oils

The term “oily fish” sounds detrimental, but that is a misnomer. Oily fish are easier to cook in the respect that they are less prone to over cooking. In freshwater, trout and salmon fall into this category, but will be covered in the next section. Quite a few saltwater species fall into the oily fish category and are terrific to eat. The down side to oily fish is that they spoil much more quickly. This makes recreational harvest better than commercial harvest in some respects, though many are available to purchase.

surf fishing

There are quite a few species that fall into this category in saltwater. These include pompano, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, wahoo, dolphin (mahi-mahi), and various tuna species. Bluefish fall into this as well, though many anglers consider them of poor eating quality. Again, the main disadvantage to these species is that they start to deteriorate more quickly.

Oily fish are best prepared baked, broiled, or grilled. Since they already have plenty of oil in the fresh, it won’t hurt if they “dry out” a bit. These species are generally not very good fried. Some are quite good raw or as sushi.

Trout and salmon

Freshwater trout and salmon tend to be naturally oily fish. They are obviously caught by anglers but are also readily available for purchase. This is true for salmon in particular. Smaller trout are excellent pan fried or sauteed, though they are not often deep fried. Larger trout and salmon are terrific grilled, broiled, baked, or smoked.

Different cooking methods

Frying is still a very popular method used to cook fish. Smaller fish in particular are good candidates for frying. Larger fillets can be cut into smaller pieces, fish “nuggets” are fun and easy to prepare. The fish fillet is covered with some type of coating, usually flour, cornmeal, or the like. Commercial coatings such as Zatarain’s make this easy and already come seasoned. It is important for the oil to be hot, 350-375 degrees, otherwise the fish will be soggy.

fried fish

Pan frying or sauteing is a great way to prepare fish as well. Either oil, butter, or best yet a mix of the two, is headed in a skillet. The coated fish fillet is placed in the hot mixture. Small fish can be cooked through in the pan. With larger fillets a good technique is to cook each side for two minutes to give it color and flavor, and then finish it in a hot oven.

The same approach applies to blackening as well. The fish is dipped in olive oil or butted and then seasoned to taste with blackening seasoning. The fish is then placed in a very hot iron skillet. Smaller pieces will only take 2-3 minutes per side, larger fillets can be finished in a hot oven.

blackened fish

Baking fish is a great option for larger fillets. The oven should he hot, 425 degrees works well. Fish can be coated in Italian bread crumbs or covered with olive oil and seasoned. A slice of lemon usually goes nicely with baked fish.

Broiling is a fast and easy method to cook fish as well. The fish will cook fast, so anglers and cooks need to keep a close eye on it. Bread crumbs will sometimes burn, so oil or butter with seasoning works well. Broiling fish is easy, healthy, and results in an impressive presentation.

Grilling is another easy technique that can be used to prepare fish. Once again, a basic preparation of oil covered fish seasoned and placed on the grill is usually the best approach.

In conclusion, this article on how to clean and cook fish will help anglers better prepare their catch for the table!

Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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