gutting fish on dock

How to Gut a Fish Properly

If you relish the idea of bringing home the freshest fish imaginable, straight from the waves to the table, you need to learn about the intermediary steps that make your fresh catch a meal. 

Here are the steps and tips you’ll need to gut a fish properly.  

What You’ll Need

To catch the fish, you’ll need top-notch fishing gear. Once you’re out of the water, you will need another set of special tools. 

The tools you need to scale and gut your fish expertly are:

  • Fish scaler – You can buy commercial scalers or use a fillet knife, spoon or butter knife to remove the scales from the fish’s outside.
  • Fillet knife – Substitute a great set of kitchen shears if you must, but a sharp fillet knife is indispensable for difficult gutting jobs.
  • Cut-resistant glove – You only need one to hold onto the fish’s body, which may have sharp fins that can scratch or cut you. Cut-resistant gloves are used to shuck shellfish and are made of loose chainmail. 
  • Fillet board – Although a plastic cutting board will work just fine, a specialized fillet board has clamps to hold the fish steady. 
  • Fish-cleaning table – Fish have a strong aroma, and many prefer to clean, scale and gut their catches outside instead of using the kitchen sink. There are some outstanding fish-cleaning systems available that will make gutting, scaling and filleting a breeze. 

If you’re cleaning and cooking your fish near the body of water in which you caught it, you may be tempted to rinse off the cleaned fillets in the lake or river. You should hold off, though, until you check the area’s regulations as some protected areas forbid this practice. To play it safe, have a jug of sterile water on hand to rinse your fish. 

Scaling Your Fish

The first step of getting your fish campfire-ready is to get rid of the scales. If you bought a scaling knife for this particular process, follow the instructions in the user’s manual. 

Using a fillet knife, butter knife or spoon, start at the fish’s tail and work against the scales to pop them loose. The scales around the head and fins will be small and the hardest to get loose. Push against the grain of the scales, or use a back-and-forth motion.

This is a messy step as the scales go everywhere, which is why it is strongly recommended to scale your fish out-of-doors. 

With some fish, a plastic pot scrubber is useful, but it has to be brand-new so that it doesn’t have any soap residue on it. The fish’s skin should feel smooth and slimy after this step. Make sure to rinse it in fresh water and discard all waste properly. 

gutting freshly caught fish

Source: BravissimoS/

Removing the Fins

Although not mandatory, it is helpful to remove the fins of the fish either directly before or after scaling it. Use a sharp knife, your fillet knife or kitchen shears to snip off the fins. Many anglers and chefs keep the tail on, but you can remove it at this point if you would prefer. 

If you’re cooking your fish with the skin on it, you don’t need to remove the tail if you don’t want to. If you’re skinning your fish, you may want to remove the fins and tail first to make the skinning process more manageable, but leave the head attached. 

Gutting Your Catch

Insert your fillet knife or any other sharp, narrow blade into the vent near the anus on the underside. Draw your knife toward the fish’s head, cutting just beneath the skin but not deep enough to puncture any organs. If you cut too deeply, the internal organs can spill into the body cavity, tainting the meat. 

When you get to the bony area just below the gills, stop and add two diagonal cuts just below the jaw. Then, you can stick your fingers into the “V” you just made and pull. Hopefully, the gills and internal organs all come out in one swift motion.

If the innards did not all vacate the body cavity, take out any remains you can see. You also want to ensure the spine is free of blood by pushing any excess out with your thumb. It will appear as a red line at the top of the cavity. 

Once you've removed all the organs and blood, rinse your catch thoroughly, as this may be the last time you clean it before storage or cooking. 

cleaning fish on a dock

Final Thoughts

Eating a fish that you caught that very day is a memorable experience. To properly prepare your fresh catch, you need suitable tools, the right techniques and practice. 

Every angler needs to know how to gut a fish. Visit Huk before your next big deep sea expedition for the very best gear, made for anglers by anglers. 

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