Last year I posted a short video on how to fillet catfish that was an old video, poor quality and was really too short for anyone to really get the details on what was taking place. I recently posted my review of the American Angler MT3 electric fillet knife and made talked in that video about my preference for the nine inch Mister Twister fillet knife blades in that review. I received a lot of questions after that from readers wanting to know why I preferred those blades and what process is that I use for cleaning catfish so I wanted to go into more details and address all of these topics.
Being a fishing guide, you learn to get really good at cleaning catfish and really fast. While some guides take the approach that the time of cleaning the fish is part of the trip, that is not my policy. If I fish for a full day trip that means I fish the allotted amount of time and then clean fish. Because of this, when I am cleaning fish I am on my time, therefore I need to get finished quickly so I can go on or move on to my next trip.
I want to preface this by saying (again) that I have a strict catch and release policy for all catfish over ten pounds, they are all released after photographs. These are brood fish that help keep the lakes populated and provide opportunity for future anglers as well. Catch, photograph and release is the only way to go with the big catfish (read our tips on taking better fishing pictures).
I also firmly support a selective harvest approach and am not one that believes you should keep fish “just because you caught them”. Over the course of a year my clients and I keep a lot of catfish on my guided trips but, I also release a lot of fish as well. I kept some numbers over the course of about eight months a few years ago and found that the ratio of fish kept versus fish released was about 60/40 (sixty percent kept and forty percent released.
When I have clients fishing with North Texas Catfish Guide Service and the topic of cleaning catfish comes up it seems that the first questions people always ask is “Do you skin the catfish” and my answer is absolutely not. There was a point in my life where thought this was the only way to clean a catfish but about ten or twelve years ago that all changed. I took the combination of what several other people I knew did and combined them all into a technique that is fast and easy and produces the same amount of fillets as a skinning the catfish. The same technique is used for cleaning blue catfish, channel catfish and flathead catfish.
I still know people that insist that they clean catfish with the old school fish skinners approach, removing the skin from the catfish and then filleting the meat off the fish afterwards. This is not an easy process and is incredibly time consuming to do, and just not my preferred way to do things.
The Tools I Use To Clean Catfish
American Angler Ultra MT3 Electric Fillet Knife – The is the one and only fillet knife I have found that is powerful enough to clean catfish that will also hold up for extended periods of time. You can read my review of the American Angler MT3 to get more information.
Mister Twister 9” Electric Fillet Knife Blades – These blades are super sharp right out of the package but the reason they work so well is they are much more flexible than most blades. Having the ability to slightly flex the blades is essential to the process I use. Always make sure you have good sharp knife blades. Dull blades will make this process much more difficult and will reduce the life of your knife.
Fillet Knife – A sharp manual fillet knife (not electric).
Kevlar Glove – I never wore one of these gloves before but last year in April I almost cut one of my fingers off cleaning catfish and decided I better start using a Kevlar glove. I don’t wear this all the time now but try to as much as I can for safety reasons.
Cutting Board – I use a piece of plywood or lumber. DO NOT use any kind of stone (like granite etc..) because it will ruin your knife blades on the first use. I f you want to get really fancy you can go with something like a portable cleaning station.
Antibacterial Soap and a Scrub Brush – Make sure your work surface and knife blades are clean and free of germs prior to starting (unless you are confident it is already clean).
Preparation For Cleaning Catfish
One of the common questions sent in from the ask a question page has been in regards to what to do with the catfish prior to cleaning them and how to store them. This has even been posted recently on the Learn To Catch Catfish Facebook page. I have two approaches to this, neither one of them involve a club.
Live well – Often times I will store my fish in the live well of my Xpress Boat. I keep the fish in the aerated live well while fishing. I drain the live well prior to heading into the marina and then remove the fish and put them in several large Rubbermaid tubs, or in a big 100 Quart Igloo Marine ice chest. I ice the fish down after they are removed from the live well and by the time I am ready to start cleaning, everything is good.
Ice Chest – My preferred method is to skip the live well and put the catfish directly into the ice chest on ice after they are caught.
My approach to this typically depends on how many people I have fishing that day. If I have a large group I don’t like to have a big ice chest taking up a bunch of floor space in the boat. With either approach the end result of putting them on ice is the same.
How To Clean A Catfish Step By Step
- Prior to starting to clean catfish, make sure you start with a clean work surface. Scrub the surface down with antibacterial soap and your scrub brush and allow the soap to sit on the surface for several minutes before washing it off. Antibacterial soap does not work immediately so you have to allow it to sit for several minutes. I have used bleach in the past also but everything I owned ended up covered with bleach stains.
- Put on your Kevlar glove to prevent injury.
- Lay the fish out and take a great fishing picture to share with your family and friends.
- Take your first catfish and lay it out on the cutting surface (remember some sort of wood surface)
- Take your electric fillet knife and make an imaginary line from just past the dorsal fin to the pelvic fin and cut down and at an angle. With this step of the process you are cutting through the rib cage. This is the hardest cut you will make when you clean a catfish (you are cutting through bone). This is the ONLY cut we will make through bone when we clean the catfish.
- Once you cut through the rib cage, the cut will get easier. When you hit the vertebrae you will be able to feel the knife bind. Stop your cut and reposition to cut sideways. Once you get some practice you will be able to make this turn with a fluid motion without stopping.
- In all of the following steps to clean a catfish it is important to remember to push the knife through the cut, Don’t try to pull the fish through the knife.
- Cut down the vertebrae holding your electric fillet knife at a slight angle following the bone until you get to the tail. Stop about one half inch before you get to the tail.
- Flip the fillet over using the blades of your knife so the skin is laying on the flat surface.
- Start at the tail and use your knife to cut the skin from the fillet. When making this cut you hold the blade at a very slight angle from the flat surface you are cutting on and push down on the blade. The flexibility of the blade to be able to push down on it and cut along the flat surface is essential to the process.
- Cut the fillet off skin, again pushing the knife through the cut, not pulling the fish through the knife.
- Turn the catfish over and repeat the exact process on the other side.
- As you finish cleaning fish, dispose of the carcasses into a bucket for later disposal. Prior to doing so, puncture the air bladder (the large white sack in the abdominal cavity) if you plan to dispose of the carcasses in the lake or river (this will keep them from floating).
- Once the fillets are removed from the catfish, take your manual fillet knife (not electric) and cut the rib cages from the fillet. You will cut back from the tail towards the top of the fillet at an angle removing the portion of the rib cage from the meat. This is a quick and simple cut that will only a second or two at most. If you have someone with you, have them cut the rib cages from the fillets while you are cleaning the catfish, this will speed the process up greatly.
The most common problem I see people having is learning the cut to remove the skin from the fillet. Usually when people are having this problem it is because they are not using the right knife blades and they don’t have the flexibility needed. I have used every brand of blades out there and the Mister Twister blades are the only blades I have found that work for this process.
It may take you several attempts to learn how to clean a catfish using this process but with some practice you will have it down in no time.
How To Clean A Catfish Video – Step By Step
The following video shows you step by step the process I use to quickly clean a catfish in 15 seconds.
**The following video is graphic. If your not sure about it, don’t watch it!
Preparing Fillets After You Clean Catfish
- If you have access to fresh water while you clean catfish, you can wash them while you are cleaning. If not, bag them into Ziplock bags as is, and then wash them when you get home.
- Always put the fillets on ice during transport.
- Make sure you clean your sink with something antibacterial prior to putting the fillets in the sink (your sink is a germ pit).
- Place the fillets in the sink and wash them thoroughly with fresh water using your hose sprayer on your sink. Make sure you get all of the blood from the fillets when washing. The pressure from the hose sprayer gets all of the blood out of the fish.
- When washing with the hose sprayer you will notice foam in the water. This is from the blood. Wash the fillets until the water no longer foams.
The Best Way To Freeze Catfish
Once you clean your catfish and thoroughly wash your fillets you can always cook them fresh but that is not always an option, so you may have to freeze them. I often hear of over complicated ways of doing this with expensive equipment involved that is not necessary.
- Put the cleaned and washed fish into Ziplock bags.
- Fill the bags with water up to the top of the fish.
- Remove the air from the bag (by squeezing it)
- Seal the bag well
- Date it with a Sharpie marker
- Place in the freezer and freeze your catfish fillets
The fish will keep for a VERY long time frozen like this and will not get freezer burn. I have kept fillets for well over a year without them being freezer burned.
Disposing of Carcasses
Yet another question I get often, what do you do with the carcasses after you clean catfish?
- Dispose Of Them In The Lake – I typically clean fish at the lake and take them back out into the lake and dump them. They get eaten by the other fish, turtles and other critters in the lake. Just make sure you puncture the air bladder so they don’t float. Also, BE COURTEOUS. Take them out in the middle of the lake away from the banks so they don’t become a nuisance to others.
- Fertilizer – I have several people that come and get buckets of fish carcasses from me after I clean fish and they use them for fertilizer in their gardens and flower beds. I have never personally done this but it is a great way of recycling and putting them to further use.
- Other Uses – Occasionally I have people approach me at the lake who want the carcasses after I clean catfish for making soup. Now, this is not my cup of tea but evidently some people enjoy taking the heads from the catfish and boiling them to make a soup with.
I hope these tips and tricks on cleaning, preparing and freezing catfish help you greatly. Like anything else, you get better and better with practice so if you give it a try the next time you clean catfish and it doesn’t work exactly right, just keep trying and with a little experience you will be learn how to clean a catfish in 15 seconds in no time.
Update 7/1/2012 – I have had so many questions on this video and the process that I use I decided to do a follow up video. This video shows the process better as I really slowed down when cleaning and provide some more audio information on what I am doing. Watch below!