Learn How To Clean A Fish

You must know how to prepare fish and game for cooking and storage in a survival situation. Improper cleaning or storage can result in inedible fish or game.



8-71. Do not eat fish that appears spoiled. Cooking does not ensure that spoiled fish will be edible. Signs of spoilage are—

  • Sunken eyes.

  • Peculiar odor.

  • Suspicious color. (Gills should be red to pink. Scales should be a pronounced shade of gray, not faded.)

  • Dents that stay in the fish's flesh after pressed with your thumb.

  • Slimy, rather than moist or wet, body.

  • Sharp or peppery taste.

8-72. Eating spoiled or rotten fish may cause diarrhea, nausea, cramps, vomiting, itching, paralysis, or a metallic taste in the mouth. These symptoms appear suddenly, 1 to 6 hours after eating. Induce vomiting if symptoms appear.

8-73. Fish spoils quickly after death, especially on a hot day. Prepare fish for eating as soon as possible after catching it. Cut out the gills and the large blood vessels that lie near the spine. Gut fish that are more than 10 centimeters (4 inches) long. Scale or skin the fish.

8-74. You can impale a whole fish on a stick and cook it over an open fire. However, boiling the fish with the skin on is the best way to get the most food value. The fats and oil are under the skin and, by boiling, you can save the juices for broth. You can use any of the methods used to cook plant food to cook fish. Pack fish into a ball of clay and bury it in the coals of a fire until the clay hardens. Break open the clay ball to get to the cooked fish. Fish is done when the meat flakes off. If you plan to keep the fish for later, smoke or fry it. To prepare fish for smoking, cut off the head and remove the backbone.

Once you have a cooler, creel, or stringer of fish, it is time to head home to enjoy your freshly caught meal, but first you have to clean it all. There are many techniques specific to different types and sizes of fish, but the basic is scaling and gutting, described here.


  1. Set up a table outdoors. You won't want to clean the scales off your kitchen counter tops, sink, and walls when you are done. Try to find a table high enough to work comfortably on, that can be rinsed easily with a garden hose when you are finished.
  2. Remove your fish from the cooler, bucket, or other container you brought it home in.
  3. Hold the fish by the head, and scrape the scales with a dull knife, upside down spoon, or other suitable tool, from the tail toward the gills. You should see scales flying off if you are using adequate pressure. Keep the strokes of your "scaler" short and quick, and work carefully around fins, they can prick or puncture your skin.
  4. Get all of the scales off around the pectoral and dorsal fins, and up to the throat, or edge of the fish's gills.
  5. Rinse the fish, and find an area on the table relatively free of loose scales.
  6. Invert the fish, so he is belly up. Small pan fish can be held in one hand, while the knife work is done with the other. Large fish will be held on their back on the table.
  7. Locate the fish's anus, and cut this out in a "Vee" or notch shape. This is not absolutely necessary, but you have to ask if you want to eat "fish bum".
  8. Insert your knife point into the cut where the anus was located, and draw the knife toward the head, splitting the fish to the base of the gills.
  9. Spread the abdominal cavity with your fingers, and drag the entrails out.
  10. Rinse the cavity out with a good stream of water from a garden hose, and wash the skin while you are at it.
  11. Remove the head if you like. Trout are often cooked with the "head on", but pan fish heads are usually cut off behind the gills.


  • Large fish will need to be filleted to cook properly.
  • Catfish and eels are "scale-less", or skinned fish, and the skin is removed to prepare them for cooking.
  • Some fish have a dark tissue lining the abdominal cavity that can be scraped off to prevent the strong, oily flavor it causes.
  • Keep the fish as cold as possible until you are ready to cook them.
  • Keep the fish wet until you scale them. If they have dried out, soak them a few minutes in ice water before scaling to make the scales easier to remove.
  • "Fillet knives" and electric knives are very helpful, especially on large fish.
  • Using a dull butter knife or the edge of a spoon for scaling will help prevent "gashing" the flesh of the fish while you clean it. Sporting good stores also sell "fish scalers", if you prefer.
  • Fish with very fine scales, like flounder, take a great deal of patience to clean. Take your time, some people are very sensitive to getting scales in their mouth while eating.
  • Clean your fish cleaning table before the left overs dry out, collect the guts, heads, and scales, and bury them or otherwise dispose of them to avoid a nasty surprise smell later on. These leavings are also very good for plants so if you can bury them in gardens, they will really benefit the plants there.
  • Cleaning up can be simplified by spreading plastic wrap (like saran wrap) across the table (and walls if indoors). It's wonderfully easy to just peel off the wrap and toss it in a trash bag.


  • Fish fins can be very sharp and cause serious puncture wounds.
  • Some exotic fish can be toxic if not prepared properly, such as puffer fish.
  • Some fish are practically too bony or strong flavored to be considered edible.
  • Some fish have very sharp teeth. If you are accidentally bitten by a fish, pry their mouth open and remove your finger, never jerk it out while the fish is clamped on it.
  • Research the area you are fishing to determine if the fish are safe to eat. For example, in Florida, some watersheds and bodies of water are polluted with mercury and other heavy metals that fish absorb. These accumulate in the fish tissue, and eating contaminated fish frequently can have serious health consequences.
  • A good rule-of-thumb to use is: if the fish is caught out of reservoir, don't eat it as contaminants and runoff wastes are likely. Conversely, a fish plucked out of a lake may be considered preferential to cooking and eating, because a lake is being replenished in some fashion, such as with a contributing river or by underground springs.

Things You"ll Need

  • Cutting knife
  • Work table
  • Scaling tool, either a dull knife or a spoon
  • Container for the "cleaned" fish
  • Bucket for scales and discarded fish parts
  • Gloves (Optional)

Article provided by wikiHow, a wiki how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on How to Clean/Gut a Fish. All content on wikiHow can be shared under a Creative Commons license

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