City folk getting their produce from supermarkets know nothing about the joys of reeling in a catch and eating something that was alive only moments ago — fish that has not been kept from decomposing by refrigeration for hours or days at a time.
The first bite is always the best, giving you a sense of fulfilment. I caught this. I deserve this. Not too many people understand that the meat they consume came from an animal that had to die, and the respect and appreciation just aren’t there.
One of the biggest insecurities of first-timers is preparing freshly caught fish for the campfire — most chuck their fish inside a cooler with ice and wait until they get home. Cleaning and filleting fish isn’t as complicated as it sounds, and you’ll soon forget the toils after you’ve had your first taste after it’s cooked.
Here are seven simple steps you need to follow to get your fish cleanly off the hook and onto your dinner plate.
Keep It Fresh, Keep It Alive
Keep your catch on stringers in the water and then in a cooler with ice until you’re ready to process the fish — this helps retain flavor and flesh quality. Once you get back to your campsite, waste no time in cleaning and cooking the fish; otherwise, get them frozen as soon as you can.
How To Clean A Fish
Use the Necessary Equipment
A number of campgrounds like state parks have fish cleaning areas for your catch; unfortunately, rural locations do not provide you with this convenience. With that in mind, an outdoor table or any clean, flat stone near the water is more than sufficient as a work surface.
Always make sure to bring these tools with you before you go fishing:
- Sharp knife
- Scaling tool
- Bucket to collect innards (innards can also be disposed of back into the water)
- Ziplock bags (just in case)
Scale the Fish, or…
Work with one fish at a time to make sure you do it thoroughly. Hold the fish’s head with one hand, and using a scaling tool (no strict requirement for a scaling tool — a dull knife or anything with an edge should do just fine), scrape the scales off the fish — moving from the tail toward the head, in short, raking motions.
Repeat the same thing on the other side of the fish, and make sure not to miss the top and belly of the fish. Rinse to get rid of any scales.
Skin the Fish
Catfish and other bottom-feeder species lack scales, but are covered with a thick, slimy skin — most people prefer to remove this before cooking. Make sure to cut the spines off to make handling easier.
After getting rid of the spine, make an incision behind the head and along the pectoral or belly fins. Suspend the fish by the head using one hand, grasp the skin with the other hand, and puuuuuuull toward the tail. As soon as your catfish is naked, rinse it well for cooking.
Cleaning And Gutting Your Fish
Insert the point of your knife inside the fishes anus, near the tail. Slowly slice your way toward the head and stop at the base of the gills. Open the belly, grab the innards, pull, toss. Some fish kidneys are located by the spine, scrape it off with a spoon.
If the fish you caught has a dark inner membrane, scrape it off. This membrane has a strong, fishy flavor — something you’d want to get rid of no matter what. If you don’t have any plans of consuming the head, cut it through the base of the gills. Rinse the fish and internal cavity.
If you choose to fillet your fish, you can bypass the need to scale or skin it. Lay the fish flat on a board on hold its head. Insert your knife (better use a fillet knife, but any sharp knife would do in a pinch) behind the pectoral fin and cut down (but not through) the backbone.
Turn the knife’s edge pointed toward the tail and slowly work your way down the tail while staying as close as possible to the backbone. After cutting through the tail, turn the scale side towards the board. Insert the knife between the flesh and skin and slice your way through to remove the meat. Repeat the process on the other side and rinse the flesh well in cold water.
Steaking is one of the perfect ways to prepare larger types of fish, and perfect for the grill. Cut perpendicular to the board along the entire fish and try to maintain a 1/2 to 1-inch thickness. Remove any bones other than the backbone.
If you packed a cast iron pan, then you’ve got the perfect pan for frying over a campfire. Drench your fish in a mixture of salt, flour, pepper, and other spices and seasonings you may prefer. The flour protects the fish from burning while ensuring that it cooks through — and you’ll get the added benefit of getting a crispy exterior.
Fry in oil or butter until the meat is white and transparent.
This cooking method doesn’t work well with filleted fish but should be perfect for steaked and whole cleaned fish.
Skewer your fish in a stick and plant the other end on the ground, making sure the stick leans toward the campfire. Turn the fish from time to time to ensure an even cook.
You can also skewer steaks, but the best way is to grill them. If you don’t have a portable camp grill, rinse some large, flat stones in the river and heat them through in the campfire. When they’re piping hot, add a drizzle of oil or butter on the stone and grill your fish steaks. Enjoy.