How to Clean a Catfish: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners

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catfish in the wild before cleaning

Cleaning a catfish is a skill that all fishers need at some point in time, since you can then prepare the catch for cooking. Catfish are known for tough skin and great taste, making the cleaning process a little different from usual. The process involves precise cuts and a bit of finesse to harvest the meat properly without wasting any part of the fish.

The steps to clean a catfish require a sharp fillet knife and a good understanding of the fish’s anatomy. You should make shallow, slanted cuts to effectively remove the skin and separate the meat from the bone. With the correct technique, cleaning can be done fast, preserving the quality of the meat for a delicious meal.

Proficiency in cleaning catfish comes with practice. Whether using traditional methods or employing faster techniques that boast a 15-second clean, the goal is to become efficient and effective in prepping it safely for cooking. Knowledge of these methods is beneficial not only for those who catch their own catfish but also for cooking enthusiasts interested in starting from the very basics of fish preparation.


Preparation for Cleaning

Get The Right Fillet Knife

A sharp fillet knife is crucial for effectively cleaning a catfish. One may choose between a standard fillet knife or an electric fillet knife, depending on preference. The blade must be sharp to easily slice through the skin, which is tougher than most fish. Our favorite and go-to catfish knife is the American Angler PRO Electric Fillet Knife (we highly recommend this knife – I basically don’t even bother to cut catfish without it). You can also just any other simple filet knife (as long as it’s super sharp! Here’s a simple filet knife to use instead).

Get The Right Gloves

For handling catfish, it’s advisable to wear gloves that offer protection and a good grip. A pair of gloves that are generally tougher like Kevlar gloves, will protect from punctures by the catfish’s fins and improve grip when handling the slippery fish. If you’re a beginner or on a budget, you can use any cut resistant gloves (these are the gloves we would use).

Setting the Cleaning Area

Prepare a cleaning area with a sturdy cutting board and access to freshwater or clean water. The area should allow for easy disposal of waste and be cleanable, perhaps with antibacterial soap, to prevent the spread of bacteria from the fish. A bucket of ice can be kept nearby to store the cleaned fish.

Make sure to use soap on your cutting board long before you need to clean your fish otherwise you’ll have to wait and let it dry off for a second.

Handling the Catfish Safely: Be Cautious of the Fins

When handling catfish, one must be cautious of their sharp barbs located on the pectoral and dorsal fins. These can cause painful stings. To minimize risk, hold the catfish firmly behind its fins or use pliers to stabilize the fish while cleaning.

Keep The Fish Alive or Iced

For the freshest result, one should clean the catfish shortly after catching it. Keep it alive in a container of water if possible, or alternatively, store it on ice. This is crucial, especially when fishing in freshwater, to maintain the quality and taste of the fish.


Making the Initial Cuts

cutting and cleaning a catfish

1. Identifying the Cutting Points

The cleaner begins by identifying key anatomical landmarks on the catfish. These points include the back of the gills, the lateral line running along the side of the fish, and the belly area. It is important to locate the backbone, which will guide the subsequent incisions.

2. The First Incision

Using a sharp knife, the cleaner makes a cut behind the gills, starting from the top and slicing down to the spine, careful not to sever it. This initial incision is crucial as it defines how easily the rest of the skinning or filleting process will unfold.

3. Removing the Head

A second incision is made—a shallow, angled cut starting behind the gills and moving around the head. The cleaner then slices down through the catfish’s spine at the nape to remove the head, ensuring that the sharp knife does not slice through the entire thickness of the backbone.

4. Opening the Belly

The cleaner must cut along the belly of the catfish from the base of the head to the anal vent. Care is taken to slice only skin-deep, preventing puncture of the stomach and internal organs, which could contaminate the meat and complicate the cleaning process.


Should You Remove The Skin? No

The common question to remove the skin of catfish during cleaning is no from me personally. The skin of catfish can be left on because it holds together the delicate meat beneath, which can be easily damaged. Also the skin can have a nice texture and flavor to it.

If you do choose to skin it – catfish skinners or pliers are often used to hold the skin while cutting, giving more control over the fish.

The steps to clean a catfish without removing the s

kin involve:

  • Snipping off the fins, especially the sharp dorsal and pectoral fins, to prevent any injuries.
  • Making precise cuts and utilizing the catfish skinner to remove unwanted parts while keeping the skin intact.
  • Exercising practice and care to minimize damage to the fish’s flesh.

It is recommended for those less experienced in fish cleaning to follow guidelines and videos that demonstrate the process, as cleaning catfish is distinct from other fish due to its tough skin and unique anatomical features.


Extracting the Fillets

catfish filet after cleaning

5. Separating the Fillet from the Rib Cage

The filleting process begins with positioning the knife just behind the gills and cutting down to the rib cage. One must angle the blade slightly up to glide the knife along the ribs, thereby separating the meat from the rib bones. This careful movement protects the integrity of the fillet.

6. Slicing Along the Backbone

With the edge of the knife, one makes a clean cut from the previous incision down the length of the fish, hovering over the spine. It is important to use a smooth slicing motion, keeping the blade close to the backbone to maximize the amount of meat on the fillet.

7. Removing the Fillet

Once the knife reaches the tail end, the fillet should be partly separated from the body. Lift the fillet with one hand, then use the knife in the other hand to gently slice away the remaining attachment, freeing the catfish fillet from the carcass.

8. Trimming the Fillets

The final step involves trimming any excess fat or unwanted parts from the fillet. This includes cutting out any remaining bones and ensuring the catfish fillets are clean and suitable for cooking. Keeping the knife flat and making smooth, controlled cuts will yield the best results.


Additional Processing (everything else)

Rinse and Clean the Fillets

Once the fillets are separated from the catfish, they should be thoroughly rinsed in clean water to remove any remaining blood, bones, or debris. For extra cleansing, some may prefer to use a solution of clean water and vinegar. Prepare a cutting board and use a sharp knife to trim away any excess fat or undesirable parts.

What To Do With Waste

Remnants from cleaning a catfish, such as skin, heads, and innards, should be disposed of properly. It is recommended to seal this waste in a bag and dispose of it in the trash, or bury it where local regulations allow. Never leave waste on the cleaning site, as it can attract pests and create unsanitary conditions.

Cutting the Fillets into Portions

On a clean cutting board, the catfish fillet should be sliced into uniform portions. This makes cooking easier and ensures even cooking times. Use long, confident strokes and a fillet knife to divide the fillet into desired portion sizes.

Storing the Catfish

Catfish fillets should be kept fresh by placing them on ice immediately after cutting, especially if they are not going to be used right away. For longer storage, place the fillets in airtight bags or containers and store them in the fridge for up to two days. For extended storage, freezing is an option; ensure that the fillets are wrapped tightly to prevent freezer burn and maintain quality.


Frequently Asked Questions About Cleaning Catfish

What is the best method to clean a catfish without skinning it?

The best method to clean a catfish without skinning involves removing the entrails and gills, followed by thorough rinsing. This allows one to cook the catfish with the skin on, which some find enhances the flavor.

Can you describe the steps to clean a catfish using a fillet knife?

To clean a catfish using a fillet knife, start by making a cut behind the gills across to the backbone. Then, slice the knife along the backbone down to the tail, flip the fillet outward, and carefully slice away the fillet from the ribs and skin.

Is it possible to fillet a channel catfish easily, and if so, how?

Fillet a channel catfish by making an incision behind the gills, slicing down to the spine, then turning the knife parallel to the table to slice the fillet off the ribs. Repeat the process for the other side. A sharp fillet knife is the key to a smooth process.

What are the techniques for cleaning catfish specifically for frying?

For frying, first, skin or fillet the catfish, then cut the fillets into uniform pieces for even cooking. Cleaning should include removing as much of the fish’s fatty areas as they can harbor a strong fishy flavor.

How can hot water be used effectively to clean a catfish?

Hot water helps loosen the catfish’s skin. Pouring hot water over the fish, followed by a firm grip and pull starting from the head towards the tail, can facilitate easier skin removal.

What are the advantages of using vinegar when cleaning catfish?

Using vinegar when cleaning catfish can help neutralize bad odors and break down slime on the fish’s skin, making it easier to handle and prepare for cooking.