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How to Clean and Scale a Fish

Prepping a freshly caught fish for the campfire can be intimidating, causing some outdoor enthusiasts to freeze it for dinner back at home. Cleaning and filleting your fish isn’t as complicated as you might think. And what work is required will be forgotten, once you taste a fish cooked over the campfire.

Here are the seven steps to follow as you take your fresh catch from your hook to the dinner plate all at the campsite.

How to Keep it Fresh

Keep your fish on the stringer in the water and then in a cooler of ice water until you’re ready to prepare it; this helps retain flavor and quality. Back at the campsite, clean and cook the fish right away or put it in a bag and freeze for later.

How to Clean a Fish

Use the Necessary Equipment

While many campgrounds, especially state parks, provide fish cleaning areas, some rural locations lack this amenity. In this case, any outdoor table is a great work surface. Some other tools to have on hand include:

  • fillet knife
  • scaling tool
  • bucket or other container for discarded parts
  • water source to keep the fish and work surface clean
  • Ziploc bags to store the fish if necessary

Scale the Fish

Always work with one fish at a time. Hold the head with one hand and, using a scaling tool, dull knife or spoon, apply short, raking motions, moving from the tail toward the head. Use caution around the sharp edges of the fins. Repeat the action on both sides of the fish, around the fins and up to the gills. Rinse the fish in water when you’ve finished.

Skin the Fish

Bullheads, catfish and other bottom-feeders lack scales, but are protected by a thick skin, which most people prefer to remove before cooking. First, cut the sharp spines off, which makes handling the fish easier.

Once you’ve removed the spine, make a cut behind the head and along the pectoral or belly fins. Hold the fish by the head with one hand, grasp the skin with the other, and pull toward the tail. Rinse the fish when it’s completely skinned.

Clean and Gut Your Fish

Remove the head by placing your knife directly behind the gills, with one motion, press down hard on the back of your blade.

On the belly of the fish, insert the knife into the anus, near the tail. Slowly slide the knife toward the head of the fish and stop at the base of the gills. Open the abdominal cavity, grab the entrails, pull, and remove. Some fish have a kidney located by the spine, which you can remove with a spoon.

Always remove the darkened inner membrane (only some fish have this) with a scraping motion—the membrane negatively affects the flavor. Remove the head, if desired, by cutting behind the gills. Rinse the fish and the internal cavity.

How to Prep a Fish for Cooking


Use the fillet method on large fish to negate the need for scaling or skinning. Lay the fish on its side and hold the head. Insert the fillet knife behind the pectoral fin and cut downward to, but not through, the backbone.

Turn the knife flat with the sharp edge pointed toward the tail and use a sawing motion to slowly work down toward the tail; stay as close as possible to the backbone. Once you’ve cut through to the tail, turn the scale side down on the table. Insert the knife between the flesh and the skin and use the same sawing motion to remove the meat. Repeat the process on the other side of the fish and rinse in cold water when you’re finished.


Use steaking as an alternative to filleting when you prepare salmon or large fish. Cut perpendicular to the work surface, along the entire fish. These cuts are traditionally 1/2- to 1-inch thick. Don’t forget to trim any excess fat or bones without removing the backbone.

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