How to Gut and Scale a Whole Fish

In 9 Simple Steps

Person descaling fish with knife
Ian O'Leary / Getty Images
  • 01 of 09

    Start Scaling Your Fish

    Scaling near the tail of a fish
    Holly Heyser

    Many people like to fish for themselves and their family for economical or leisure purposes. In fact, there are plenty of individuals that use fishing to provide food for their families, allowing them to be frugal. Whether you're camping or fishing nearby, cleaning, gutting, and scaling a fish isn't as complicated as it might seem.

    After you've caught your fish, make sure to let your fish hang on the stringer in the water and then put it in a cooler full of ice water. This will keep your fish fresh and flavorful. You want to either freeze it for dinner later or start preparing it immediately so you can eat it fast. Try to aim for cleaning your fish within 1 to 2 hours so it doesn't spoil. Plus, dried out fish will make the scales harder to remove come clean time.

    Start Scaling

    Find a spot outside or in a place where you can clean up easily, as the scales will go flying. Then grab the easiest tool to scale a fish with: a butter knife. You can purchase a special scaler, but you don't need one. Start scaling your fish by holding it firmly with one hand and scraping from tail to head with the knife.

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  • 02 of 09

    Scale up to the Edges

    Make sure you get near the fins when scaling a fish
    Holly Heyser

    Make sure you get the scales on the top of the fish and near the fins, remembering to clean the tail. Try not to press too hard or gash the fish, and be careful around the fins as they can prick the skin.

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  • 03 of 09

    Scale the Collar

    Don't forget to scale the collar of a fish
    Holly Heyser

    Don't forget about the collar of the fish. This is often the tastiest part but often skipped over entirely.

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  • 04 of 09

    Start the Cut

    Starting to cut the fish to gut it
    Holly Heyser

    Start the gutting process by slipping the tip of your fillet knife into the vent. Slice upwards, away from the fish and the guts, and toward the head.

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  • 05 of 09

    Cut to the Gills

    Completing the cut in gutting a fish
    Holly Heyser

    Complete the cut by forcing the knife through the bony portion. This part lies between the pelvic fins (that are paired up on the belly of the fish) and the base of the lower jaw.

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  • 06 of 09

    Remove the Guts

    Removing fish guts
    Holly Heyser

    Remove the guts by reaching in and grabbing them right at the base of the head, where you feel everything connect. Pinch that spot and pull the whole lot out. On large fish, you will have to carefully cut this with your knife.

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  • 07 of 09

    Scrape the Liver

    A cleanly gutted fish
    Holly Heyser

    Scrape out the liver attached to the backbone of the fish. Then cut out what remains of the swim bladder, which is a white sack that attaches itself to the cavity.

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  • 08 of 09

    Snip the Gills

    Cutting the gills
    Holly Heyser

    The gills will impart a bitter flavor to your fish and will make it spoil faster. Remove the gills by cutting them where they attach at either end of the arc that they form. You can use kitchen shears or a knife. On small fish, you can even just rip them out.

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  • 09 of 09

    Remove the Gills

    Removing the gills
    Holly Heyser

    Once the attachments are cut, you can remove the gills. Then wash the scaled and gutted fish well in ice-cold water. Pack it on a bed of crushed ice until you're ready to cook it.