If you're going to eat your catch, you have to keep it fresh. Keep caught fish in a live well, a cooler or on a stringer in the water. And always fill your cooler or live well with the same water you're fishing in.
If you're not going to eat your catch, unhook it carefully—while it's still in the water—and release it.
Fish spoil quickly if you don't handle them properly from the moment you land them. You'll end up with softened flesh, a strong flavor and a "fishy" or sour odor.
In this section we'll give you some basic fish-cleaning tips. And some more detailed information on scaling, filleting, steaking and storing your catch.
Things You'll Need to Clean Fish
A good fillet or fish-cleaning knife
Scaling tool, either a dull knife or a spoon
Container for the cleaned fish
Bucket for scales and discarded fish parts.
Most freshwater fish will die after being out of the water for about ten minutes.
Larger fish and saltwater fish may need to be killed before you clean them—but that involves something called an "icky stick" and brain puncture—so we'll leave that for another time.
Small pan fish can be held in one hand during cleaning, large fish should be held on their back on the table.
Insert the knife tip into the fish's belly near the anal opening and move the blade up along the belly, cutting to the head. (Or you can starting cutting from the head down to the anal opening.)
Keep the knife blade shallow so you don't puncture the intestines.
Spread the body open and remove all of the entrails, locate the fish's anus and cut this out in a "V" or notch shape.
Some fish have a kidney by the backbone. Remove it by scraping it out with a spoon or your thumbnail.
Rinse the cavity out with a good stream of water and wash the skin. Some fish have a dark tissue lining the abdominal cavity that can be scraped off to prevent the strong, oily flavor it causes.
Remove the head if you like, trout are often cooked with the head on.
Clean your fish-cleaning table immediately, collect the guts, heads, and scales, and bury them
Scale the fish on a flat surface using one hand to hold it by the head. Rake the scales from the tail toward the head with a fish scaler or a large spoon. Remove the scales on both sides of the body.
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.
Removing the skin improves the taste of many fish. It also removes a layer of fat just under the skin. Catfish, bullheads and other bottom-feeding fish are usually skinned.
Hold the catfish by its head firmly on a flat surface with a clamp—it's a good idea to snip off the spines before skinning.
Cut through the skin behind the head and pectoral fins.
Use pliers to remove the skin from the body, pulling from the head toward the tail.
Grasp the head of the fish with one hand and the body with the other, break the backbone at the head.
Pull the head and guts away from the skinned body.
Wash the fish in clean water—it's ready for cooking.
Filleting means getting the meat of the fish without the bones. Larger fish, like largemouth bass, northern pike, salmon and walleye are usually filleted. A filleted fish has its skin and all of its bones removed before cooking. Scaling isn't necessary.
Fillet knives have a long, thin blade that's very sharp and specifically designed for filleting fish. To work properly, they must be really, really sharp. If you have any slime on your hands or the fillet knife handle, wash it off to prevent slipping.
You can also wear metal-mesh fish-cleaning gloves to protect your hands.
Lay the fish on its side on a flat surface.
Cut the fish behind its gills and pectoral fin down to, but not through, the backbone.
Without removing the knife, turn the blade and cut through the ribs toward the tail using the fish's backbone to guide you.
Turn the fish over and repeat the steps.
Insert the knife blade close to the rib bones and slice away the entire rib section of each fillet.
With the skin side down, insert the knife blade about a 1/2-inch from the tail, gripping firmly and put the blade between the skin and the meat at an angle.
Using a little pressure and a sawing motion, cut against, but not through, the skin.
Remove the fillets from the skin.
Wash each fillet in cold water.
Pat dry with a clean cloth or paper towel. The fillets are ready to cook or freeze.
A large fish is often cut across the body into thick steaks. First clean the fish and skin or scale, if necessary (salmon steaks are often prepared with the skin still on). Before steaking, chill the fish or put it in a freezer until it is partly stiff for easier cutting.
Cut through the body working from the tail toward the head. Make each steak from 1/2-inch to 1-inch thick. After steaking, trim away any belly fat or bones you can see, but not the backbone.
Tips, Tricks, and Warnings for Cleaning Fish
Fish fins can be very sharp and cause serious puncture wounds.
Some exotic fish can be toxic if not prepared properly, like puffer fish.
Some fish are too bony or strong flavored to be considered edible.
Some fish have very sharp teeth, be careful if you're holding a fish by the head during cleaning.
Research the area you're fishing to determine if the fish are safe to eat, some bodies of water are polluted with mercury and other heavy metals that fish absorb.
Lakes, ponds and streams are the best place to catch fish for eating because they're usually fed and drained by a larger contributing river or underground spring.