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Big Bend Florida Sportsman Guide

Fishing Tips


Fish Cleaning

By Capt Ken Roy

 Fish Cleaning  I


 Cleaning your work surface and cleaning tools prior to cleaning fish is job #1.  I see Seagull crap on cleaning tables nearly everywhere I clean fish and it darn sure doesn’t seem sanitary to me.  A little water, bleach, and scrubbing will go a long way in assuring the safety of the fish you take home with you.

 Whenever possible, I use a stainless steel/Kevlar glove on my left hand to prevent knife cuts.  This glove catches and holds particles of meat and slime and would, if not properly cleaned, be a great source of contamination.  It is bleached before and after use and, when cleaning fish at home, it goes right in the dishwasher.  My fillet knives get the same treatment, ditto for my knife sharpening equipment.  How often do you bleach your stone?  Has it ever gone through your dishwasher? 

I like to “blast” the slime off a fish with water pressure before filleting.  It makes the job a lot easier and more sanitary. 

I am a slow fish cleaner but there is a reason for my low speed.   The technique I uses minimizes the chance of cutting into the abdominal cavity of the fish.  As long I do not cut into the abdominal cavity and I am sure I am cleaning under sanitary conditions, I wipe but do not rinse fillets.  Abdominal fluids on fish look yucky, often add a taste that I am not partial to and have the potential of introducing bacteria that affect the freezer life of the fish.  Fillets are bagged in bulk at the dock.  Packaging should be done at home. 

A few minutes spent cleaning the work surface and tools will enhance the flavor and safety of the fish.  Vacuum bagging assures good tasting fish over a longer period.  Fish should be used within a few months of freezing for best flavor. 

For the best fish of all, keep no more than you can eat fresh.  Fresh beats frozen every time.  If you like fish, you go fishing more often.


 Fish Cleaning II

Another Tip for Sanitation

 Flies around the fish cleaning table are another potential for contamination of your fillets.  Here is something that will go a long way in reducing the number of flies that land on your fish.   

If you catch a Bonita during the trip, save it for bait or chum for your next trip.  Always fillet the Bonita before any other fish. Lay the fillets, skin side down at the end of your work surface. (After you’ve sanitized the surface)  For some reason, flies are attracted to dark flesh fish far more than to white flesh fish.  All of the flies will land on the Bonita and leave your Grouper fillets alone. 


Fish Cleaning III

Cleaning Tools: My Choice 

I’ve always had good service with Kai-Kut, Dexter-Russell, and Sani-Safe knives and sharpening products.  These are the knives shown in most commercial fishing catalogs and supply stores that cater to the commercial fishing industry.  Some of these knives are sold at tackle stores also.  I haven’t seen them in “Marts.”  The Normark (Rapala) Kevlar/Stainless Steel gloves work for me and are considerably cheaper than similar gloves sold by commercial fishing supply stores.  The Normark gloves fit either hand and in addition to their protective function, allow you to hold on to slippery skin easier. 

I use stainless steel rather than carbon steel blades.  Carbon steel is harder and holds an edge better but, in a wet and salty environment, they require constant attention to prevent rust. 

Fish Cleaning IV


My knives are very personal.  I allow few people to use my primary knife and absolutely nobody but me sharpens this knife.  A good knife will last 3-5 years for me while dressing tons of fish in this time.  The reason for this longevity I attribute to proper sharpening technique and little abuse of the blade.   

I can only describe the sharpening technique I use by saying that I make every pass over the stone at exactly the same angle.  Failure to do this causes a rounded edge.  Again, knives are personal tools.   

For a new knife, I start out sharpening it on a medium grit carborundum stone.  I apply a little extra pressure to get the job done fast.  ALWAYS use oil on your stone for initial sharpening.  I usually get pretty close to my desired bevel with 20 or so strokes.  I follow this with the fine side of my stone.  Again I add light oil to the stone and, in a few strokes I should have the knife ready for my soft “Arkansas” stone. 

 I use the Arkansas stone with water rather than oil.   Some knives take longer than others but generally a few minutes honing will produce a very smooth razor edge.  I maintain this edge with a Ceramic stick similar to a Butcher’s Steel.  As long as I don’t nick the knife edge, a couple of passes down the ceramic stick between each fish will return the knife to razor sharpness. 

“Vee-Block” type sharpeners definitely have their place and deserve mention here.  The knife I use for cutting bone and heavy scales is sharpened with a Vee-Block sharpener.  The key to using these sharpeners is to use little, but constant pressure the full length of the blade as you pull the knife though.  If you use hard downward pressure or varying pressure as you pass the knife through the block, you chip and nick the blade.  This produces a knife that performs erratically, and wears rapidly.  Used correctly, these sharpeners produce a decent edge for most users and an edge far sharper than many people are capable of producing with a stone. 

After cleaning and sharpening your knife, apply a light coat of vegetable oil to the blade to prevent rust.  Store your knives in a safe place where air can circulate.


Fish Cleaning V

Other Tools 

I prefer use a short bladed knife to cut Grouper cheeks.  It has a rounded tip that is easily sharpened and this knife makes the job go quicker than any other knife I have ever used.  If I remember correctly, the knife was made by Victorinox.  It had a longer blade to start with but I broke the blade and made the cheek cutting knife with this function in mind.  I use the Vee-Block sharpener 100% of the time with this particular knife. 

When cleaning Grouper and Snapper throats, I cut the large bones with Tru-Temper pruning shears.  These have a curved blade and anvil.  They are, by far, the easiest cutters to use in this application.  The “Guaranteed to cut a penny” cutters fail miserably at this task.  The Tru-Temper shears require thorough cleaning and oiling with cooking oil to prevent rust. 

A simple tool for holding the skin when skinning can be made by bending about ½” of a dinner fork’s tines at 90 degrees forming claws.  I know several people who use these forks regularly with great results.   

Normark and other companies make skinning pliers that work great for skinning Catfish and other species.  Those made out of Stainless Steel will last better than those made of carbon steel or plastic. 

I prefer to hang large fish like Cobia.  Filleting and skinning is far easier this way.  A hook screwed to a post works but with larger fish, a pulley arrangement works better. 


Fish Cleaning VI

Better Tasting Fish 

Bleed fish ASAP.  Large fish, once they have calmed down, can be removed from the fish box, hung over the side of the boat and bled out by slicing the gill arches.  This is essential for Sharks which must also be eviscerated and washed out ASAP.  A Shark should be bled and eviscerated before boating.  Other large fish like Tuna and Cobia should be bled also.  Kingfish that bleed out taste better.  

Cool large fish, especially Sharks and Tuna as fast as possible for better taste.


Fish Cleaning VII

Don’t Clean Live Fish 

I hate to clean live fish.  Some squeamish clients have voiced complaints and there are a couple of other compelling reasons to make sure fish are dead. 

When a fish’s heart is still beating, blood is being circulated through the fish.  This results in bloody fillets which require rinsing.  Blood pools in organs when the fish is dead, resulting in nice white fillets.  I avoid rinsing fillets as much as possible. 

A third reason not to clean live fish is the safety aspect.  A fish might jerk, causing you to cut yourself.  My Kevlar/SS glove has prevented this at least once. 

The easiest way to assure all of your fish are dead at the end of the trip is to add a bucket of salt water to the ice in your fish box.  Fish that are still alive pump this cold water through their bodies and soon die.  This serves an additional purpose.  As the fish die, they exude all of the body slime which can be easily rinsed off at the dock making cleaning even easier.


Fish Cleaning VIII

Deodorizing Stinky Hands 

A few drops of Lemon Joy dish soap will eliminate 90% of fish odors plus make your hands feel a lot better after fish cleaning.  You can eliminate the other 10% of the odor with a teaspoon of Lavoris Mouth Wash.  An additional benefit of this procedure is you will have far fewer sores from tiny cuts and fin pricks.