How to Clean & Fillet a Catfish

How to Clean & Fillet a Catfish

Want a catfish dinner but don’t want to go out? Look no further, we’ve got your back! Catfish are a delight to eat, but getting them ready for eating often has people breaking out in sweat.

This guide is an assortment of tips and tricks to help you breeze your way through the processes of cleaning and filleting a catfish. Excited? Let’s go check it out!

Step 1: Catch your catfish

The first step to a terrific catfish meal is to find a fresh one. It would help if you kept in mind that the fresher your catfish is, the easier it will be to clean and fillet, and the better it will taste. There are many different ways of acquiring a fresh specimen of catfish, and not all require you to hop in a boat and go to your nearest fishing point. Here are some of them:

Make your catch: the best way to guarantee a fresh catfish is to catch it yourself. Catfish are found in freshwater bodies and are especially prevalent in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs across the United States. These places are often great fishing points to visit where the outcome would be a bucketful of fresh catfish. Catfish are usually caught using Juglines or trotlines, as they are bottom-feeders.  

Ask an angling friend to get one for you:  a terrific way to get a fresh catfish is to ask an angler you know who is going on a fishing expedition. Often many anglers go to enjoy the sport of catching a live fish and then choose to release it after they’ve achieved their goal. This is usually because not many people know how to deal with the fish they’ve caught. Make it a point to tell your friend how you would appreciate them bringing you a freshly caught catfish, and they’ll be sure to oblige.

Get a living one: if you happen to live near a farmers’ market, a fish farm, or even a Chinatown, you’re in luck. These places usually have a great assortment of living catfish, which you can choose and buy whenever you please. 

Choose a dead one from the market: of course, there is always the option of picking a dead catfish from a marketplace. Though this may not be as preferable to some, such catfish are more easily acquired as they are readily available at the nearest fishmonger or grocery store.

Whether you make the perfect catch on a fishing trip with your best buds or get your hands on a fair catch at your local supermarket, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that you did is just fantastic, and boy, you must be excited! 

Step 2: Take Precautions

Before you can get to the business of killing, cleaning, and filleting your catfish, it is essential that you prepare yourself and your workspace. Here are a few things to keep in mind: 

Scrub the work surface with an anti-bacterial soap to ensure you have a clean place to work on. 

Wear Kevlar gloves to prevent self-injury.

Sharpen your knives to make smoother cuts.

Step 3: Kill your catfish

If you’ve opted for a dead catfish, either handed to you by a friend who returned from a fishing expedition, or got a dead one from a local market, just breeze over to the next step. For those who have a living catfish at hand, you’ve got one extra little step to make before getting the perfect fillet. You need to kill your catfish. 

Having a living catfish means that you’ll get to enjoy the freshest possible fish! But before you can get to cleaning and filleting the catfish, you need to ensure its dead. Many people think whacking the catfish in the head is the best way to go. This move will more likely stun your fish rather than guaranteeing its death. 

Plenty of chefs and anglers around the globe prefer to pith their catfish. Pithing is a humane way of killing a fish, consisting of a sharp knife being poked into the fish’s brain cavity, allowing it to meet a painless end.

Many seasoned fishermen also swear to the use of ice to kill fish. By storing live fish in ice can cause fish to die due to the extreme temperature. The ice also helps cool the fish making it healthier to consume. 

Step 4: Make Careful Slits Around the Head 

After ensuring your catfish is dead, pick up a sharp knife and use it to make a clean cut encircling its head. This slit would help make handling easier, and give you a point where to start skinning the fish. At this point, you don’t need to sever the catfish’s head from its body. 

Step 5: Separate the Fins 

Carefully remove the back (dorsal) and stomach (ventral) fins. The catfish fins are sharp and removing them will help improve your handling of the fish. You can leave the tail on for better gripping.

Step 6: Strip Away the Skin

Removing the skin is considered the trickiest part of cleaning a fish. Catfish have thin skin which grows thicker as they get older. Thick catfish skin can easily be removed by a pair of pliers.

However catfish with thinner skin need to be handled with more care and precision. Though a slow process, using your fingers, a pair of tweezers, or even a sharp knife is the best way to go. Try to ensure that very little flesh is attached to the skin you remove off the catfish’s body. 

Step 7: Get Rid of the Head and Guts

Choose a big knife and use it to cut the vertebrae underneath the line you previously made which encircled the catfish’s head. This would dismember the catfish’s head from its body. 

Next, use the knife to make a straight cut on the catfish’s belly. This slit would allow you to scoop out the catfish’s guts. Take care you don’t puncture the guts, as it would release an exceedingly unpleasant odor while also making a big mess.  

After removing the head and guts, be sure to give your catfish a thorough rinse. 

Congratulations! You have successfully cleaned your catfish!

Step 8: Make the Dorsal Fillet

Firmly position your knife parallel to the dorsal side of your catfish. Start slicing along the top side of the midline. Make sure you slice close to the backbone to ensure a well-balanced fillet where no flesh goes to waste. Deepen your cut as you move towards the tail, stopping only until you reach the vertebra. 

Step 9: Make the Ventral Cut

After making the dorsal cut, lift up your catfish and continue working your knife from around the tail, then move along towards the ventral side. Lifting up the tail would help remove the first fillet. 

When it comes to the ribs, ask yourself what role you want them to play during cooking. If you intend to make stir fried fish nuggets, having a messy rib cut wouldn’t matter. However, if you want a whole fillet, it’s imperative that you work your way slowly to ensure a better to make sure that your strokes are even and precise to ensure a better looking fillet.  

Step 10: Prepare your Second Fillet 

Now that you’re done with one side of the catfish, move over to the next side and repeat steps 8 and 9. Though the technique will be the same, handling your fish will become trickier as the spine will seem more flexible due to the flesh removed. The tip here is to carefully persevere through the process, and you’ll do great! 

Step 11: Ensure Nothing Goes to Waste

A good way to respect the environment is to ensure minimum wastage. After making fillets on both sides of the catfish you must have noticed some bits of flesh that still remain on the vertebrae. Rather than tossing the whole thing in the bin, you can easily trim and then freeze the carcass. This carcass can later be used to make a delicious fish broth!

Additionally, instead of throwing the entrails and head in the garbage, you can bury them deep in your garden to fertilize the soil!


Cleaning and filleting a catfish doesn’t need to be a hard task. If you get enough practice you could even go through the whole process in a matter of minutes! To ensure a perfect fillet, it is vital to remember to take necessary precautions such as sharpening your knives for better results.

Keep in mind that after cleaning and filleting your catfish, you wash your hands thoroughly before moving on to the next step: cooking! 

Catfish are immensely popular for their taste, so after you make the perfect fillet, it is time to find an exemplary recipe to compliment it! How exciting! 

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