Over the years, I’ve learned that my best chance at holding my weight in a fishing camp is to happily clean and prepare our catch. My earliest memories as a little boy were watching my grandfather pulling the catfish out of my grandmother’s cement laundry basin, putting them on a long slimy board, driving a nail through their heads and pulling off the skin! Nothing too delicate about the procedure (actually sounds way gross the way I’ve just written it!), but a necessary first step toward preparing that fried catfish dinner that would be waiting on the table later that night.
I learned how to clean and scale pan fish, trout and most anything else that we were lucky enough to bag, and to appreciate the fine eating quality of fresh fish. Later on, when health became an issue, most of my diet became fish and other seafood, so the skills boded me well!
As fish go, the salmonids are about the easiest to prepare. If there are any scales, they come off easily; the fish are nice and symmetrical, and the bones are pretty easy to find and remove. Some of the other species can be a real challenge.During one of our trips to the John Day River, I got to take a shot at cleaning some smallmouth bass my buddies got for me. Sadly, they were usually catch-and-release guys, (maybe because they couldn’t clean fish!) and brought me fish that were all dried out. The scales on those things held on like they had been cemented to the fishes’ sides, and I was worn out before I could even use a fillet knife, which as it turned out, we didn’t have. You may not have tried it, but trying to take fillets off a bass with a butter knife is not going to turn out well. Fortunately, everyone was real hungry and I did up a lot of sliced potatoes, so it sold OK, but lessons were learned.
Some fish are just hard to figure out. One year a couple of buddies and I hit a hot spot for starry flounder. These were pretty flatfish in the two-pound range. The meat was great, but for the life of us we couldn’t get a handle on how to get a nice set of fillets off the critter. It had a protruding row of bone along the bodyline that seemed to really foul up getting a decent fillet. Some species of flounder or sole were no trouble at all to cut, but these were awful.
I talked to a buddy of mine, and he suggested that I might go out to the marina the next day. There was a woman working on the dock who was cleaning sturgeon for a fee. Since a lot of people were catching flounder during the sturgeon trips, I might get some pointers.
The trip turned out to be well worth the effort. I had cleaned a lot of sturgeon over the years. With their hard “diamond” scales, they are a bit challenging, but this lady did a great job and I picked up a few pointers. (Someday when we are allowed to catch sturgeon again, I might be able to get a few skills back!) But the real schooling came when someone brought in a half-dozen flounders. The lady showed me how to divide the fish into quarters and how to move the knife to get the most meat possible from each quadrant. I was overjoyed at the learning experience and gave her a $5 tip. She couldn’t believe that someone would pay her just to watch, but it was money well spent. I tried my newly learned skills on the next set of flounders we landed and it worked like a charm. The fillets came out looking really nice with way less effort. Sadly, the flounder run hasn’t returned, but maybe they’ll come back with the sturgeon.
Each species of fish requires different skills. Halibut are a lot like the starry flounder I cleaned, but on such a huge scale that they are a bit more like butchering a deer! You get a lot of meat. A good fish butcher can get a nice pound of meat just from their cheeks!
American shad are incredibly hard to clean. They have more bones than any other fish. Native Americans told a story about the Great Spirit granting fish status to a porcupine under the condition that its quills be turned into bones. I have to admit I haven’t counted, but did find a source that said that a shad has 769 bones. I got on the Internet and watched an expert working to fillet one of those fish and make it boneless. He had three tricky rows of pin bones on either side of his fish. I got dizzy just watching him work. I love shad, but wouldn’t think of trying to get all those bones out.
Fortunately, on many fish a simple fillet cut will put you in a position to clear out a row of bones protecting the stomach, liberate the backbone and maybe pull out a few pin bones and you are in business. In fish like a shad or a salmon, cook them awhile and the bones melt away!
But like many jobs, the important thing is to get the right tools. A good sharp knife is the first step, and then you need a good cutting board. My wife got me a huge cutting board, as big as the countertop, with a depressed area along the edge to catch the blood.
You can learn how to fillet a fish from a buddy with skills, by watching a pro at a marina or fish market, or, as I like to do, by Googling up someone on YouTube and watching them do it as they explain the process. What blows me away is how many different techniques people have developed.
One afternoon I went on the Internet, Googled up, “How to fillet salmon,” and watched about a dozen demonstrations. It was amazing how many ways there are to fillet my favorite fish. There are seemingly an unlimited number of ideas that bladesmen have come up with to turn a salmon into nice slabs. Fishermen use all kinds of knives, from a traditional long skinny pointed fillet knife, to a thick knife with a very curved blade, to a flat shaped knife that looked more suitable to putting putty in a window frame. The one thing they all had in common was that the end product, the fillets, looked wonderful! Naturally, I got inspired, bought several new knives and have tried most of the techniques—some worked great, some I just couldn’t figure out, or didn’t have the coordination to pull off, but it was fun trying!
One thing I can assure you is that practice is the key element. Every year it takes me a few fish to get my technique down pat. During the early part of the season, I volunteer to clean fish for my buddies. There is always a warning that they will get what they pay for, and maybe I’ll cut a few fillets that don’t look quite like those from the market. But I do work cheap, and I have a bunch of lazy fishing buddies. By the middle of the season, I’m good enough that they’ll sweeten the pot with a little beer or wine for my efforts. (Offered after my cutting is over, naturally!).
During a great year like this, I catch enough fish to share with a lot of family and neighbors, and being able to pass out a very nutritious and wonderful tasting main dish gets a lot of points for help with stalled cars, broken fence posts and leaky roofs! If I really get ambitious and smoke some of my catch before I pass it around, people will cut me slack when I forget to return a call or miss a meeting.
So buy yourself a good knife or two, learn how to make the most out of every fish. When the fishing is good enough to give you a surplus to share, learn how to do a good job of preparing it yourself. It is a lot of fun, provides a lot of satisfaction, and will earn you an invitation to some very good fishing trips!