How to Keep and Clean Your Fish

Posted by nick under Fishing Beginners Guide

You’re going to need a few things:

  • sharp knife (a fillet knife is best, but any thin sharp knife will do)
  • clean running water
  • plastic bags
  • cooler with crushed ice (best option, if possible)

*For the record, this is only one of your options after you catch a fish, your other option is to let it go.

Step 1: Kill It

Do the fish a favor and kill it quickly and humanely. Give it a good rap on the top of the head right behind the eyes with a stick or a commercially available “Priest” (a wooden or metal club used to dispatch fish).

Killing a fish quickly is not only kinder to the fish than letting it suffocate in the air or die on a stringer, but it also translates into better tasting fish. The sooner you clean the fish, the better.

Step 2: Clean It


  • Rinse the fish with clean (not lake) water, to remove the protective slime.

  • Remove both pectoral fins.

Scale the Fish (optional)

  • Use a scaling tool, a spoon, or the blunt side of a knife.

  • Run your scaling tool down the length of the fish’s body at an angle, from tail to head.

  • You’re done scaling when the body is smooth.

Gut the Fish

  1. Insert the tip your knife into the anal vent.

  2. Carefully slit the belly open all the way up to the gills. Be careful not to cut the internal organs, you don’t want to taint the meat.

  3. Insert the tip of your knife (sharp side facing jaw) into one side of the tab directly beneath the jaw and push it out the other side of the tab.

  4. Cut the tab free.

  5. Hold onto the jaw with one hand.

  6. With your other hand’s thumb, push into the tab

  7. Use both your thumb and index finger to reach into the body cavity and pull out (forcefully) the guts and gills.

  8. Scrape out the blood line (dark red line clinging to spine inside the body cavity) with your thumb’s fingernail or a spoon and rinse out body cavity.

Prepare Fish for Table

  • Cut the head off, below the gills (optional).
  • Cut the tail off (optional).
  • If you want to remove the bones, cut along both sides of the dorsal fin and give it a good yank from the tail back to the head (optional).

Step 3: Keep It

  • Properly dispose of the guts. Don’t litter. A good way to deal with the guts is to double bag them and put them in the freezer until trash day.
  • In the field, pack the body cavity with ice and place in your cooler. Don’t let fish sit in the melt water.
  • At home, store cleaned fish in a covered container in the refrigerator (40° or lower). Fish will keep for two days.
  • To freeze, wrap the fish in plastic wrap as a vapor barrier (to prevent freezer burn) and follow that with a good-quality freezer wrap.
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19 Responses to “How to Keep and Clean Your Fish”

  1. Zina Nian Says:

    I wish you will keep writing new content often as you have one dedicated visitor here.

  2. Jaden Says:

    Wow! You know your stuff. This really helps!

  3. Geoff Says:

    I haven’t fished in over 20 years so your site is a great reminder of things I used to know. I started with loading line on a spinning reel and found all the topics were a good review. Very straight forward and simple explanations. I also like your emphasis on humane treatment of the fish. thanks for the work

  4. jp Says:

    love this stuff

  5. danielle Says:

    i think you should add a part about releasing your fish safely and getting it off the hook without hurting it. i have had this problem when i was learning to fish.

  6. Oscar Says:

    I just want to say that the information presented is amazing and extremely helpful. Great job and thanks for the helpful info.

  7. Dawson Says:

    Read the whole site. Thanks so much for doing this.

    Haven’t fished since I was a kid and now have a license and some resolve to get out there and try… Hahah and probably catch nothing, but its the effort that counts!

    Thanks for this site – really what the internet was designed to be like!!

  8. Andrew Says:

    Just like there’s more than 1 way to skin a cat, there’s more than 1 way to skin a fish.

    This method is unnecessary for bluegill and won’t work for catfish.

    Bluegill: lift their pectoral fin & slide your knife under. Find the back edge of (for lack of a better term) the head bone. Cut down along that edge until you get to the ribs. Then turn your knife towards the tail of the fish & cut along the ribs until you run out of meat. Then, if you want, carefully slice the skin off by laying the fillet skin side down & sliding your knife along the skin. The sharper the knife the easier this is. Scaling them first makes it less messy when you go to actually fillet it & helps when rinsing off the slime coat.

    Catfish: Cut the skin all the way around the head. Grab the skin with a pair of pliers and pull towards the tail like you’re taking off a sock. Catfish have really thick skulls, so smacking them in the head might not do the trick. I have always stabbed them in the head from just in front of the dorsal fin down. You can actually nail them to a board this way & make pulling the skin off easier.

  9. Keith Says:

    Never throw nutrition in the trash. It highly irresponsible. This is not to attack you it is just our throw away culture and most people never think about it. There are many ways to use fish guts am ill leave it up to your imagination except a few suggestions. For fisherman why not save it for chum on your next trip? Have a dog, chickens, cats, worms, other? Feed it to them (cooked the bowels for the higher animals or bury them). Small quantities for a worm bin ot compost pile (dont overdo it). Plastic bagging soil fertility is an act or hubris i hope everyone will consider this as major factor in the long term viability of the human species.

    Thanks for the site i learned a lot!!

  10. Mark Says:

    Great articles! Completely new to fishing, after reading all your articles, I’m ready to go on my first fishing trip. Thanks!

  11. Grant Says:

    Really enjoying this info. Just got my first rod and reel since I was a kid (54 now) and looking forward to your site giving me a leg up on learning to fish.



  12. Eric. Says:

    I’m having a hard time understanding where the anal vent is. And the gap he is talking about

  13. Eric. Says:

    Tab* not gap, sorry

  14. sam bria Says:

    after cleaning the fish feed the other animals and fish by throwing the entrails back in water or leave out for raccons etc

  15. Reinie Says:

    In the gutting section, 3-6, what is the “tab”? It’s not labelled in your fish anatomy section (which I liked because I never bothered to look it up before – I just fillet them like dad showed me).

  16. Best Fishing Reels Says:

    I find this blog really useful. Another great guideline. I will definitely recommend for all of those who like fishing.

  17. Matt Says:

    I’ve only ever fished once as a kid and I’ve been dying to try since I moved to Florida. Since I didn’t know squat I never tried. But now I know enough not to be totally lost and confused. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  18. Avraham Says:

    This guide is so gooood

  19. Chris Says:

    This website is outstanding, thank you so much for taking the time to educate us rookies! Really helpful

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