how to guy a fish?
Catching a fish is the first one — but I’m going to assume that you either know how to do this or have bypassed it altogether and intend taking a trip to the harbour to snap up the next best catch fresh off the boats.
Either way, a whole fish needs some attention before it’s scaly flesh makes its way to your plate. And if you don’t know what you’re doing then getting it prepped can be a messy affair.
If you’re in the wilderness then you’ll need to find a big flat rock or piece of wood to work on. Otherwise, a big chopping board is good. Cover it with newspaper and lay your fishy friend out ready for cutting.
Space – Make sure you’re away from the rest of your kit as things can get a bit messy.
Water – Keep in mind that you will need to clean the fish once you’ve gutted it so ensure that you have easy access to a source of fresh water.
Waste – Have a plan for disposing of the waste. If you are in the wilderness, especially bear country, then it’s probably best to burn the entrails along with the bones and head of the fish after dinner. You’ll need to store them in something whilst you cook and eat. Returning fish waste to the water has various environmental implications that can be specific to the area. So best to stay on the safe side and avoid this option.
TIP: Don’t throw away the head until you’ve scooped out the delicious and tender flesh of the cheeks.
Please include attribution to coolofthewild.com with this graphic.
Before you get started, it’s worth noting that although this process is fairly simple, it does take a bit of practice to do it well. So don’t be put off if your first attempt is more difficult than anticipated. Once you’ve had a go you’ll feel much more confident the next time round.
So here’s a step by step guide on how to gut a fish:
Take your butter knife and scrape the skin of the fish with a short back and forth action, working from the tail to the head. Using a spoon or the back of your sharp knife will work well too. The scales may fly about the place a bit and the skin should feel smooth and slimy once you’re done.
Neaten up your dinner by snipping off any sharp fins. It’s easiest to use scissors, but your sharp knife will work fine too.
Take your sharp knife and insert into the anus of the fish. This is found near the tail on the belly. From here, cut along the belly towards the head of the fish all the way to the base of the gills.
Now it’s time to get your hands dirty! Spread the abdominal cavity open and pull out the guts with your fingers or a spoon. Use your knife to carefully cut any bits that are still attached. For bigger fish you may need to get your whole hand in there. The entrails of different fish may have varying degrees of muckiness about them, so don’t get put off if things aren’t as clean as you’d hoped.
It’s important that you remove the gills as they can add a bitter flavour to your meal and cause the fish to spoil more quickly. So, open up the gill flap to detach the gills at either end of the arc that they form. You can do this with your knife, or a pair of scissors if proving tricky.
Finally, rinse your empty fish in fresh cold water and lay on a clean surface ready for cooking! Place all the waste, along with the newspaper, in a container ready to be burnt on the fire later.
If you don’t like getting your hands dirty then wear a pair of rubber gloves. They will need a thorough clean along with the rest of your equipment.
If you’re new to the world of fish gutting then try to get hold of a round fish for your first bit of butchery. These include salmon, mackerel, bream, cod and trout, amongst others.
Once you’ve done the gutting, it’s best to get cooking straight away to keep it as fresh as possible.
The simplest and probably the most ancient way to cook your gutted fish is skewered on a stick over the hot coals of a mature fire. It requires no equipment so is ideal for lightweight camping. If you set up a stand with a forked stick then you can leave it suspended over the heat for 10-15 minutes (turning halfway through) whilst you get the rest of your feast prepared.
This method allows for the cavity of the fish to be stuffed with ingredients of your choice. Add a little water to the bottom of the foil to allow steam to infuse the flavours through the fish. Place the wrapped fish either directly in the embers of a hot mature fire or on a grill over small flames.
If you are unable to light a fire, smaller fish can be fried over a gas stove. You will need butter or oil to prevent the fish from sticking, and frying works equally well over a campfire. A good method to speed up the cooking of the flesh without burning the skin is to make cuts into the flesh. These can also be filled with seasoning and oil to spread the flavours deep into the fish.
So there you have it. Knowing how to gut a fish is a fairly straightforward process. After your first attempt it will become much easier and yuour campfire dinners will never be the same again!
The man behind the fish counter found me investigating a mangled heap of pale salmon fillets. The adjacent row of whole mackerel looked more inviting. The man told me that their fish guy had gone home for the night—if I wanted the fish, I would have to clean it myself. I needed it for an attempt at a teishoku, a Japanese-style set meal, but I had no idea how to gut a fish.
After delaying the decision with a lap around the aisles of my neighborhood market, I decided that I needed to learn how to clean a fish—a task I’ve managed to avoid for 27 years. Since the lockdowns began in March, I’ve been bunkered down in Portland, Oregon, trying to cook something each week that challenges me to stretch beyond my usual skill set. But more important, I wanted to learn how to gut the fish because our food system excels at alienating people from the food they eat. This separation allows people like me to eat animals even though I am unsure if I could kill them. Why am I okay with that violence when someone else does it for me? And why do the workers assigned these tasks so often work in terrible conditions?
Even as someone who regularly cooks and eats fish, I rarely have to think about the fish’s journey to my fridge. I can outsource the catching, the killing, the transportation, and the gutting. Consumers don’t have to think about how fishing industry workers labor on average 14.6 hours a day and are at higher risk for opioid use disorders, according to a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. They also don’t have to think about what happens to the rest of the fish when they buy a fillet wrapped in plastic or pulled from a mound of ice. But considering the dire condition of Earth’s oceans—approximately 30 to 35 percent of fish populations are fished unsustainably, according to a 2016 United Nations report on the state of world fisheries—it is clear that our relationship with fish must change. We need to reckon with the whole fish, guts and all.
After bringing home my mackerel that evening, while finishing up the last few emails of the day so that I could turn my attention to dinner, the lights went out. Portland is built in a forest, and the branches have a tendency to body slam the electric lines. I heard the telltale groan from one of my neighbors across the street.
Not allowing a lack of electricity, and a therefore out-of-commission oven, to thwart my plans, I decided to grill on an 18-inch Weber on the porch. But I still needed to figure out how to gut the mackerel. I tried using cell phone data to watch a YouTube tutorial, but it never loaded. I tried calling my fish-loving friend Ben, but he didn’t answer. The light was quickly starting to fade from the sky. I looked at the fish sitting in the sink; the fish looked back at me with its glassy eyes. “I’ll get you gutted, don’t worry,” I said, as I patted its tiger-marked skin.
It is, of course, my dad who I should’ve called first. He grew up fishing around O‘ahu, with nothing more than a bamboo pole, a hook, and some fishing line. During the summers, when the reef fish spawned, he’d catch dozens of papio (small ulua) at a time, dump them into a sink, and gut them all. Nobody else was going to do it. If his family was eating fish, that meant catching, gutting, and cooking them, too.
I tried to FaceTime him so he could get a visual. The video call couldn’t connect. I started to worry that I was going to need to perform surgery on this fish without any medical school training. In the dark. In a last-ditch effort, I ran out to the street, where sometimes, if the stars align, cell service bounces down to my phone. I dialed my dad and waited. Thankfully, he picked up.
I told him about the power outage and the uncleaned fish fiasco. He laughed.
“Okay, so you need to take a knife,” my dad said calmly, “and stick it in the anus.” I gasped. I imagined my grandma’s eyes widening, overhearing this on the other end of the line. But then again, she has lived in Hawaii for almost a century; she knows how to clean fish, too.
“And then just run it along the bottom up to the gills. You’ll see the guts, and they should come out pretty easily,” he explained. “Then rub it with oil and salt, and do it about five minutes each side on the grill.”
I went back inside to my fish, whose corporeal form remained in the sink. The sun had set, and I didn’t want to use my phone’s flashlight, because I needed to save the remaining battery. A soft blue twilight barely illuminated my hands. I held the fish up to the window and tried to find its butthole.
“Thank you, fish,” I muttered, and I pushed in the knife. I ran the blade along the bottom axis until it brushed up against the gills. I peered into the flaps of flesh and saw the guts presenting themselves. I tugged at them, and they obliged, sliding out into my hands. I laid the goopy strings of innards aside in a little dish. In a matter of moments, the deed had been done.
I ran cold water over the cavity, and it occurred to me how lucky it is that the guts run along the bottom and not in the core of the fish, like the seeds of an apple. After setting the fish in a baking tray, I gave him a little massage with olive oil and some sea salt from the Oregon coast. I went out to light the charcoal, and I grabbed a cold Asahi from the fridge. I dumped the hot coals into the grill and set my friend down to sizzle. While waiting for the fish to finish grilling as my dad had instructed, the kitchen lights flashed on, and I heard cheers from around the neighborhood. I shook my head and cursed at the newly illuminated kitchen.
Mackerel is an oily, fishy fish. I like to take a chunk of the meat and dunk it into a lemon, soy sauce, and grated daikon situation, and then rest it on a bed of rice, if only for a moment, so that the excess sauce and fish bits flavor the rice, before shoveling it into my mouth. The soy sauce stands up to its fishiness, and the lemon and daikon cut the oiliness.
After my partner and I devoured the fish, the guts from earlier were still digesting in the dish on the counter, and they needed a final resting place. Maybe when I die, I thought, my guts will be torn out in preparation for a proper grilling. A real send-off. But what would become of my guts in that scenario? I stared down at the fish’s innards. I couldn’t bear to throw them in the trash. We had gone through so much together.
Now that you have carefully measured and weighed your catch to prove that you caught the biggest fish of all, let’s get down to business: gutting (and cleaning) your fish.
A dead fish’s flesh degrades slowly, but viscera (internal organs) are the most sensitive to the decomposition process. To prevent this decomposing from spoiling the flesh, it is usually recommended that you gut your fish before storing or cooking it. Gutting your fish means manually removing the organs from the abdominal part of the fish.
To gut a fish, we recommend that you use a tried and tested technique. It will ensure better results, and it will above all prevent you from damaging the flesh. You can find many step-by-step videos online that show how to gut a fish.
In some instances gutting is not even necessary. Using the filleting technique, you can remove pieces of meat from a fish without gutting it. Filleting is particularly interesting when dealing with bigger fish, such as a northern pike.
Once gutting is done, many anglers also choose to clean their fish.
They proceed to:
Is all of this necessary? Absolutely not. Actually, the decision to clean a fish really comes down to personal preferences. Cleaning a fish makes it possible, among other things, to make it easier to eat once on the plate, or to make a dish that might turn off some guests more attractive.
Gutting and cleaning a fish require some basic equipment:
There you go! All you have left to do is to cook your fish and enjoy it in good company.
Find out how to fillet pike in this video produced by the Fédération québécoise des chasseurs et pêcheurs (FédéCP).
Antoine Port, fishing guide, explains in this other video from the FédéCP the best method for a simple and fast evisceration (in French only).
See also how to make walleye wallet fillets (in French only).
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