Fish Handling And Cleaning 101

Fish Handling And Cleaning 101:

Fish fins can be very sharp and cause serious puncture wounds, be very careful in your fish handling. Especially while learning how to gut a fish, fillet a fish, or perhaps clean a fish whole. In the same vein, some fish are characterized or known for having very sharp teeth, so be careful if you’re holding such fish by the head while cleaning.

Fish Handling Tactics and Techniques:

Safe fish handling is an essential part of ethical angling and protection of the fish. This is the way to protect them for current and future fishermen. This also applies to current and future coastal inhabitants and communities that depend on fishing for a livelihood.

Catch-And-Release Fishing Approach:

Safe fish handling is especially important in catch-and-release fishing. Catch-and-release regulations are in place to help fish populations recover when they have been over-harvested. Or when the population is being preserved for example it is naturally limited or genetically distinct.
Releasing a fish does not mean it will guarantee its survival. But with careful handling, it can reduce the stress on fish. This will give it a better chance to live and reproduce.

Follow Stipulated Regulations:

A number of sportfishing regulations are designed to increase the survival chances for fish that are caught and released.

Bait bans are used to reduce the anglers’ chance of catching fish that are more easily caught using bait.
Seasonal closures are set to protect fish when they are most vulnerable, such as during spawning season.
P.S – Learn the regulations for the water body where you’ll be fishing.

Avoid Fishing In Warm Water Temperature:

Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water. When the water temperature rises, the lower oxygen levels increase the stress on the fish (optimum temperature for many trout species is 15 C). Fish that are experiencing elevated stress often do not survive the additional stress of being caught, handled, and released.

A thermometer should be part of your fishing equipment, to take the temperature of the water. On days when the water temperature is 22 C or higher, anglers should:

1. Not fish that waterbody but instead find a cooler waterbody to fish.
2. Fish in the early mornings or late evenings, when the water is cooler.
3. Minimize the exertion and handling of the fish by using heavier angling gear and reducing the playing time.
4. Refrain from photographing the fish, and release it as quickly as possible.

Consider Water Depths:

Consider water depths (precisely when fishing for the likes of walleye or perch)

Walleye and yellow perch have a lower chance of survival if they are caught in water deeper than seven meters. This is especially true if they are brought to the surface quickly and then released.

When they are caught in deep water, their swim bladders can’t adapt quickly enough to the change in water pressure. This causes the fish the equivalent of ‘the bends’. The internal damage that this causes will kill the fish.
If you are fishing in deep water, and catch a prohibited fish, it must be put back, even if it dies.

Most sportfishing regulations state that you must release every fish that cannot be legally kept. The size limit or species, or catch limit, or other regulations, without exception, even if the fish is injured or dead.
Walleye and perch should be fished for in relatively shallow water, where there are some great angling opportunities too.

Do Not “Fizz/Effervesce” Fish:

A fish with a ‘swollen’ swim bladder from decompression usually has sides that are hard where they should be fleshy. They might or will have the swim bladder protruding from its mouth. When releasing a fish with a swollen swim bladder, do not ‘fizz’ it. This means (poke a hole in the swim bladder so the fish sinks). Fizzing does not increase survival rates but causes injury, stress, and most certainly death.
Fish that have swollen swim bladders should be released carefully into the water. With enough time, the swollen swim bladder could correct itself. The fish could float belly up on the water, but it has a good chance of survival if left on its own.

Measuring The Fish Size:

When fishing where there is a size limit, carry some kind of measuring device. Leave the fish in the water and hold the stick beside it to determine if it’s legal length. If it is the legal length and you are keeping it, hold the fish in a rubber mesh net or a holding cradle and measure the side of the fishing that is lying flat to ensure it is legal. If it’s not legal length, gently remove the hook with needle-nose pliers and release the fish.

Employing Barbless Hooks:

Although studies show that overall fish mortality rates are the same regardless of which kind of hooks are used. It doesn’t matter whether they are caught with barbed or barbless hooks.  Some anglers prefer to use barbless hooks in order to reduce fish handling times. Howbeit, the use of barbless hooks is not a requirement in some states.
Ensure to handle with care
(Tools for safe fish-handling);

1. Fish-holding cradle
2. Hemostats
3. Measuring board or stick
4. Needle-nose pliers
5. Small-mesh rubber landing net
6. Wool or cotton gloves


1. Remember, try to minimize the time that you ‘fight’ the fish once it is on the hook. Fighting or ‘playing’ a fish to exhaustion dramatically increases the chances of them dying.
2. Keep fish in the water while handling and releasing them. If you must handle the fish, completely wet your hands. Or wear soft cotton or wool gloves that have been soaked in water. This prevents damage to the fish’s protective mucous surface.
3. Act quickly by having your measuring board ready if you must measure your catch. Minimize the time the fish is out of the water.
4. Prepare in advance to release your fish by choosing a hook that can be removed from the fish’s mouth easily. Then try and use a landing net to ensure a quick release. Use needle-nose pliers to remove hooks and never tear a hook from a fish. If the hook is deep in the fish’s throat, snip the line and release the fish, leaving the hook in place. The hook will fall out or eventually dissolve.

Be Gentle With Fish:

When handling a fish that is to be released, be gentle. Don’t squeeze the fish or put your fingers in its eyes or gills; these will increase mortality. Limit how long the fish is out of the water. Whenever it is possible, unhook the fish without removing it from the water.
Then when you are releasing a fish, never just throw it into the water.

If you have to handle a fish, release it gently and headfirst. Most of the time a fish will often swim away on its own. If it doesn’t, hold the fish gently in front of its tail and slowly move it back and forth to push fresh water over its gills. Release it when it begins to swim away.
If the fish will be used for your dinner, dispatch it quickly and keep it on ice.

Don’t Cull Your Catch(Fish) In The Process:

Holding fish in a live well or on a stringer with the intention of releasing them once a larger fish is caught reduces survival rates after release. Studies show that the mortality of released fish significantly increases if they are held in live wells. If you plan on harvesting some fish, you should dispatch them and keep them cool, preferably on ice.
Culling is unlawful if the practice occurs beyond a person’s legal bag limit.

Fish cleaning

How To Clean A Fish:

Cleaning a fish is quite simple, even though it isn’t always pleasant or fun to do. That said after you’ve got the first one done the rest will be easier to do. When you have tasted the flavor of freshly-caught fish, you’ll forget about the mess of the blood and guts. Besides, for the best possible meal, start by treating the fish right from the moment you land it.

Meanwhile, if you’re going to eat your catch, you still have to keep it fresh, even before you begin cleaning your fish. On the other hand, if you don’t intend to eat your catch, simply unhook it carefully while it’s still in the water and release it using proper catch and release practices.

Going forward, also ensure to keep caught fish in a live well, a cooler or on a stringer in the water. Even so, always fill your cooler or live well with the same water you’re fishing in. Having said that much, also ensure you have a sanitary work station and dispose of all raw fish parts after working.

Cleaning The Fish:

1) Get a plastic bag or bucket and lay out newspaper to keep clean.

You’ll use the bag or bucket for guts and bones. Get your garbage disposal system ready before you start cutting so you can toss the guts and excess fish without getting up. Newsprint laid out on the cutting surface is helpful for soaking up the inevitable liquids that will spill out of the fish.

2) Use a dull knife or spoon to remove the scales.

While a knife or spoon will work, a more effective way is to screw a bottle cap onto a wooden handle and use the cap to remove the scales. Work against the direction of the scales, raking up from tail to head. Think of a short, shallow, scoop motion, getting under the scales and pushing up and into them quickly to rake them out of the fish.

Get both sides, the top, and bottom of the fish.
It can help you scale if you do it under running water. You can simply do it underwater in the sink, to prevent a mess.
If you miss a few scales don’t worry, they aren’t tasty, but they won’t hurt anyone.

3) Skin thick-skinned fish instead of removing the scales.

If you’re cleaning a bullhead catfish(also known as a Sculpin), or another thick-skinned bottom feeder, consider skinning it. To do so, cut a 1 inch (2.5 cm) notch right where the top of the fish’s head meets its body. Then, gripping the fish from the head, peel the skin back to the tail. Rinse the flesh thoroughly when you’re done.

These fish, in particular, have a thick, unappealing skin that most people remove before cooking.

4) Cut a shallow incision from the anus up towards the head.

The small hole on the belly of the fish, near the tail, is the anus. Using a sharp knife, make a shallow cut from here along the belly of the fish, stopping at the base of the gills.

Don’t jam the knife in there, or you’ll cut the intestines open. You want a shallow cut so that you can pull them out intact, preventing messy (and unappetizing) spillage.

5) Use your fingers or a dull spoon to scoop out the fish’s innards.

Get in there and get everything out. These gummy, long guts should come out without much of a fight. Make sure to check and make sure that you got out anything. Something you missed, like the large, dark kidney in the back or some strands of innards along the walls.

6) Scrape out any dark, inner membrane if found.

Not all fish have this layer in their inner cavity, but you want to remove it if they do. This is strongly flavored and has an oily, extra-fishy aroma that you don’t want in your final dish.

7) Cut Off The Head:

Cut off the head directly behind the gills, if desired, you do not have to cut the head off. Depending on your cooking method you might not want to, as the head adds flavor and depth. The “cheek meat” of the fish, as well, is considered the best part in some cultures.

8) Remove a dorsal fin by pulling firmly from tail to head:

This, like the head, does not have to come off if you don’t want to remove it, but it will help remove many nasty little bones. Simply grip the fin tightly near the tail, and pull quickly in the direction of the head to rip it out cleanly.

9) Rinse the fish off, inside and out, in cool water.

Make sure you wash the outside, getting rid of any sticky scales, as well as the inside, getting rid of bits and blood. Your fish is now ready to cook.

Use as little water as possible to preserve the flavor of the fish. Some people prefer to gently wipe off the fish with a paper towel instead of rinsing it.

How to Fillet a Fish


(Filleting/Skinning a Fish);

1) Cut just behind the top of the head until you hit the backbone. To do this, lay the fish on one side. Take care not to cut through the spine, just to it.

2) Continue this cut in an arc around the fish’s head. Again, you don’t want to cut deeper than the backbone. You will not be cutting the head off, just cut about halfway into the fish.

3) Turn the knife and cut horizontally towards the tail, through the center of the fish. You’ll basically be cutting off the entire side of the fish, removing the whole flank, skin and all. The knife will travel perpendicularly to the backbone, which you can use as a guide to ensure a nice, flat cut.

Now For The Finish:

4) Flip the fish and repeat on the opposite side. Simply repeat the same process on the other half of the fish, removing the other fillet.

5) Lift and remove the rib cage from the inside of the fillet. Using a smaller knife to remove the rib cage. This will be the small, almost translucent set of bones on the lower third of fish fillet. It should come off in one piece.

6) Cut directly through the fish perpendicularly to form steaks as an alternative. If you don’t want fillets, you can cut steaks. Use a sharp knife and cut perpendicular to the backbone, going all the way through the spine to get 1 inch (2.5 cm) steaks. This is common with bigger fish, like trout and salmon, and retains the spine running through the middle of the fish.

7) Scale the fish or remove the skin entirely, if desired If you want to cook the fish with the skin still on, use the dull side of a knife to rake the scales off. Use a short, lifting motion from the tail to the head to quickly scrape all of the scales off. If you don’t want the skin, simply slide the knife between the fish and the skin and simply cut the skin away.


Are you planning on cooking your fish whole, rather than filleting it? Then you must learn how to gut or clean a fish.

1. To begin, rest the fish on the table or cutting board.                                                                                                                                         2. 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.
3. Keep the knife blade shallow so you don’t puncture the intestines.
4. 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.
5. Some fish have a kidney by the backbone. Remove it by scraping it out with a spoon or your thumbnail.                                          6. Rinse the cavity out with a good stream of water and wash the skin.                                                                                                            7. Some fish have a dark tissue lining the abdominal cavity that can be scraped off to prevent a strong, oily flavor.
8. Remove the head if you like, trout are often cooked with the head on.
9. Clean your fish-cleaning table immediately, collect the guts, heads, and scales, and discard them properly.
Your clean fish is now ready to be cooked, or ready to put in your freezer.


Now that you have a clean fish, or prepared steaks or fillets after being handled with utmost precaution(s), you can store your fish or cook your fish after you might have done due diligence or research on the area you’re fishing to the end that you determine whether or not the fish is/or are safe to eat. The reason is that some bodies of water are polluted with mercury and other heavy metals that fish absorb. That said, always check your state regulations before you head out fishing.

Dean Jensen

I started fly fishing in 1972 and I have learned quite a bit about this wonderful sport called fly fishing and I want to share some of the things that I have learned.

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