Feasting on fresh fish is one of the simplest joys in life, especially for the person who caught it. Not even the most expensive gourmet dish can compare to the taste of a fish that you yourself have landed and cooked over a campfire. But between all the fun parts of landing and eating the fish, you first need to put in the time and work necessary to make this feast possible. And no, we’re not talking about battling against the fish; we’re talking about cleaning and gutting the fish.
Cleaning and gutting a fish is work that very few people find enjoyable. Nonetheless, it’s a crucial job and one that anglers will need to learn eventually. So unless you have someone to do it for you, you may as well start learning how to gut a fish while in the wild. And although it is a messy process, it’s not really that difficult to do. That said, here are the five steps on how to clean a fish for you to follow so you can take your freshly caught fish out of the water and into the frying pan (or grill).
1. Gather Your Tools and Supplies
Before you start working on the fish, you first need to make sure that you have everything you need to clean and gut the fish. You don’t want to be reaching into your camping backpack or tackle box once you handle the fish. When you do, you will only be transferring all the slime and blood onto your gear and these types of dirt and stain can be a challenge to remove.
That said, here are some of the things you’ll need:
- A sharp knife. You can use a fillet knife or a boning knife. If you don’t have any of these, any sharp hunting or multi-purpose knife will do.
- Scaling tool or a spoon. If you don’t have any, you can use the blunt edge of your knife.
- A bucket or a container filled with water for cleaning the fish.
- Another bucket or container where you can put the fish guts, fins, and other fish parts that you won’t be eating. You can also put the fish bones here once you’re done eating.
2. Kill the Fish
A little note before we get started. Experts advise that you keep the fish alive until you are ready to cook it. This is because fish meat is very delicate, and once it’s dead and you don’t take the necessary steps to preserve it, it will lose its taste and texture very quickly. That said, if you’re fishing in a kayak, you may want to bring along a floating basket or a cooler where you can keep your catch. And once you’re back on shore, then when you can go ahead with the first step: killing the fish.
As an angler and an advocate of the outdoors and the wildlife, you’re probably already aware that any fish (or creature for that matter) that is intended for human consumption should be killed in the most humane manner possible. Leaving a fish to die slowly is simply cruel. Besides, it can also cause degradation of the fish’ meat. There are three common ways that anglers kill fish before cleaning and cooking them for dinner.
A Blow to the head
A solid blow to the fish’s head is a well-established method for killing a fish. This is done by holding the fish firmly and striking it between the eyes with a ‘priest’ (a small wooden club used by anglers to administer the fish’ ‘last rites’). If you don’t have a ‘priest’ then a mallet or anything similar to a club will do. For small fish, one good blow should suffice while for a larger one several blows may be necessary to complete the job.
Severing the Spinal Cord
This is done by cutting through the area of the fish known as the throat latch which is located between a fish’s gills with a sharp cooking or multi-purpose camping knife. Afterward, the fish’s head is bent backward to break the spine and sever the spinal cord. Many anglers prefer to use this method because it allows the fish to thoroughly bleed out, an important process that can help in optimizing the food value of the fish. This is also considered to be the fastest way to kill a fish, though it can sometimes be very messy considering all the blood that will be coming out of the fish.
Brain Spiking (Iki Jime)
This practice is said to have started in Japan and is also considered the most humane way to kill a fish. Using a slim, sharp, metal spike the angler finds the location of the fish brain and then quickly pierces it which then kills the fish instantly. Then again, you’ll want to have a good idea of fish physiology before performing this since locating the small brain in a small creature can be quite challenging. Also, the exact location of the brain may vary from one fish species to another.
3. Find a Suitable Cleaning Area
Many campgrounds have a dedicated area for cleaning fish. This is especially true for state parks or other well-developed campsites. However, such amenities aren’t always available, especially those located in rural areas. If your campsite doesn’t have one, you can always use an outdoor table, though you’ll want to make sure that you clean the table well afterward. You’ll also want to place a newspaper over the table before you start working as this can help minimize the mess you’re likely to make while cleaning and gutting your catch.
Some anglers settle for using a rock that has a flat surface instead. Although this can work, this is not really recommended since this can damage your knife’s edge. If you have no other option, then go find a piece of flat wood first. You can also cut the rounded sides of a dried tree branch using your camping hatchet or ax. You can use the rock as a sort of table and the wood as a chopping board so that you won’t dull your blade.
4. Scale the Fish
Some anglers scale their fish before gutting it, while others do so after. Sometimes though, it is much easier to scale the fish before gutting it because it is much easier to hold the fish while it’s still full and rounded.
When scaling a fish, you can use a specially designed scaler like the ones used in restaurants or even at home. However, this is one cooking utensil that you probably did not bother bringing along since it’s not included in many fishing checklists. Still, if you could include it in your checklist if you want to.
But what if you don’t want to spend money on a scaler or forgot to bring one? In this case, you can use a spoon or the blunt edge of your knife. You should never use your knife’s cutting edge when scaling a fish since doing so will dull the blade.
After deciding which tool to use, scrape the scales of the fish by applying short, raking motions against the grain of the scales. Be careful not to apply too much pressure on the fish; otherwise, you may end up bruising the flesh. Repeat the same process on both sides of the fish until all the scales are removed. Also, be careful when removing the scales around the fins of the fish. These are pretty sharp and spiny and can lead to cuts or even pierce the skin.
Scaling a fish can be a very messy process with all those loose scales flying everywhere. As a responsible angler and camper, collect all those loose scales and put them in the bucket or container reserved for the fish guts.
5. Gut the Fish
To do this, you first need to slip your knife’s pointed tip into the fish anus which you can find near the fishtail. Once your knife is inside the fish, slice the belly working from the anus towards the head. You’ll want to do it slowly and carefully to avoid slicing or cutting any part of the fish’s internal organs, the contents of which (especially the bile and the stomach) can leave a bitter taste on the fish’ flesh.
Once you’ve sliced the belly, open it reach in along the base of the fish’ head. Feel where the guts connect to the head and sever the connection by pinching it or cutting it with your knife (as is the case for large fish). Then, grab the fish guts and pull the whole lot out. Sometimes, a small part of the gut or some organs will stick to the fish’ spine or flesh (i.e. the fish’ kidney, the swim bladder, etc.) You can scrape these out with a spoon. Again, do this carefully to avoid puncturing them. Put these in the container along with the fish scales.
After removing the guts, it’s time to work on the gills. It is important to remove the gills since these parts of the fish can leave a bitter taste to the fish even when cooked. To remove the gills, simply open the side of the fish head and reach inside and pull the gills out. Be sure you get every bit of the gills out. Place these in the container along with the other entrails and discarded parts of the fish. Afterward, wash the fish clean and you can start cooking. You should also consider washing to get the fish smell out of your hands so you don’t have to endure that stinky fish smell while eating.
How to Dispose of Fish Entrails Properly
Now that you’re done gutting and cleaning the fish, what do you do with that bucket full of fish entrails? Well, some anglers simply decide to throw or scatter them in the woods or leave them out on rocks for birds and other animals to consume. Although this may sound like you’re helping these creatures, you may actually be doing more harm than good. This is why this practice of disposing of fish entrails is no longer recommended and even banned in some places.
One reason for this is because fish entrails left in the open attract wildlife, and though we love these creatures very much we don’t want them coming near our campsite or camping tent. Also, it has been observed that many animals and birds who are used to finding these fish entrails often follow anglers and campers in the hopes of obtaining a free meal. Over time, these creatures lose their natural wariness of people, which can become quite a nuisance or even a safety hazard. Also, they may lose their natural hunting skills and instincts which then leaves them helpless in finding their own food.
Another reason is that when these fish entrails are not eaten by wildlife, they are left to rot which then leaves an undesirable smell around the campsite. You may not notice it if you leave the campsite before the fish entrails start to rot, but what about the other anglers or campers who come to visit after you?
That said, it is only proper that you dispose of these fish entrails properly instead of leaving them lying around. The most recommended way of doing this is by packing them in a Ziplock bag and carry them out of the campsite. However, if this is not an option for you, here are two disposal methods that you can consider.
Deep Water and Moving Water Disposal
Some environmental agencies recommend chopping those fish entrails into smaller bits and throwing them back into the deeper parts of the water. Take note: throw them back into the deep parts of the water, never on the shallow parts where they can be washed ashore or found by non-aquatic creatures.
Experts recommend this because by doing so, you are providing food for the fish, and those bits and pieces which aren’t eaten sink to the bottom of the lake or river which then decomposes and provides nutrients for the bottom dwellers and aquatic plants.
Some anglers throw the fish entrails in their campfire hoping that they’ll burn to ashes. However, they rarely do and instead become charred pieces of meat that can still attract wild animals. So instead of burning them, it is better to bury the fish entrails instead.
When looking for a burial site, look for one that is at least a hundred yards away from the campsite, trail, or shore. Once you’ve found a suitable place, dig a hole that is at least two feet deep and one foot across. If you can dig deeper, then that would be better. The point here is to avoid wildlife from digging up the hole and finding the fish entrails.
Please note that different states have different rules when it comes to the disposal of fish entrails. For instance, some may allow deepwater disposal while others may not. Thus, be sure to do some research about the accepted disposal practices of the place where you’re fishing.
Globo Surf Overview
Cooking and serving freshly caught fish after a long day of fishing is one of the most rewarding aspects of this sport. What happens before that though, is an altogether different story. Sure, gutting a fish may not be the most pleasant part of a fishing adventure. However, you’re going to have to do it if you want to enjoy your catch in the wild. That said, learning how to gut a fish or how to clean a fish is one skill you’ll have to learn as an angler. It isn’t always as complicated as many people think, and you’re bound to realize that all the work you put in will be worth it once you’re munching on that tasty delicacy you yourself caught and cooked over the campfire.