How to Gut and Clean Fish

The process of cleaning fish is typically done either by your local fishmonger or before it hits your supermarket display. However, not everyone has access to a fishmonger when they have a supply of fresh fish. The process of learning how to gut and clean fish is fairly simple. You just need the right tools and space to do the task.

Type of fish

The type of fish you have will decide which process you will follow to clean the fish. Many types of freshwater fish need to have the scales removed while others will need to be skinned. However, not all nonscaled fish need to be skinned; this depends primarily on the person who will be eating the fish. The size of the fish also makes a difference in the cleaning process -- larger fish may need to be filleted, while smaller panfish can be cooked whole.

Gutting the fish

Even if the fish will be cooked whole, the fish will need to be gutted. This process is simple but not for the faint of heart. Some people prefer to remove the head prior to gutting, but the choice is completely up to you. By leaving the head, you have more fish to hold on to during the gutting and cleaning process.

Using a sharp knife, cut the stomach area open starting at the vent. Work the knife toward the fish's head until its guts are exposed. If the head has not been removed, be sure to cut completely up through the pelvic fins. For smaller fish, the guts are quite small and can be removed by hand by reaching into the stomach area, grabbing the guts, and removing. For larger fish, the guts may need to be removed with a knife to ensure that none of the stomach contents are left behind.

When cooking whole large fish, the head is customarily left attached to the fish for presentation. When the head is left attached, the gills are also left behind, which can cause a disagreeable flavor to some people. If you prefer to remove the gills, they can be removed easily with a pair of kitchen shears. For small fish, the gills will generally pull out by hand with little effort.


The process of removing the scales from the fish can either be done before or after gutting. A butter knife or metal spoon both work nicely in removing the scales or you can purchase a specialty scaler. To remove the scales, hold the fish firmly and begin scraping the scales from tail to head.

After removing the scales from both sides of the fish, remove the scales that are located on the top and bottom area. Rinse the fish and run your finger along the fish's body to ensure all of the scales have been cleaned away.

For fish that do not have scales, you can remove the skin by scoring the skin just below the head. Using a special tool or a pair of kitchen pliers, pull the skin down towards the tail in strips until all of the skin has been removed.

Final touches

After you have learned how to gut and clean a fish, you will quickly discover that this is a messy job. It is best to gut and clean your fish outdoors with plenty of space. The cleaning space can be sprayed down with an outdoor hose after you have finished. Once the fish are gutted and cleaned, you can prepare the fish using your preferred cooking method.

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