How to Fillet a Fish

It is an unfortunate circumstance that you can’t just unhook your fish, slap it on a plate, and call it dinner. Well, you can. But you’ll probably get sick and a few bones wedged in your throat while you’re at it. Assuming you want to avoid the possibility of internal bleeding, the purpose of this blog post is to take you through the steps of filleting a fish. What you choose to do after you fillet your fish is up to you. We hope that you throw the fillets on a pan, on a grill, or in the oven for your next meal. But, hey. Your choice.

Let’s Get Started

Fillet KnifeFirst, before any filleting happens, you want to make sure that you have all of the tools necessary to get the job done. If you can, get your hands on a good fillet knife and fillet board. Fillet knives are built specifically for filleting fish and many are sturdy enough to cut through bone. If you can’t get a fillet knife, go for one with a serrated edge. And any cutting board will do, but wooden ones tend to preserve flavor.

We also recommend that you put on gloves to cut back on the mess and the fishy smell. If you can’t wear gloves, rubbing a lemon wedge on your hands will neutralize the scent of handling fish carcass. If a lemon wedge is hard to come by—after all, you might be filleting your fish on the dock or on the side of a river where lemon wedges don’t just float idly by-Live to Fish offers Fish-D-Funk Fishing Hand Wipes that are specifically made for getting rid of that fishy smell. Of course, you’ll be wiping or “lemon wedging” your hands after you’re done filleting.

Mangrove SnapperOnce you have a knife and cutting board handy, don your gloves or brace yourself for fishy impact. Rinse your fish and place it on the cutting board horizontally with the bottom facing you. You can either choose to cut the head and tail off during the fillet process or leave them be. For larger fish, most people choose to leave the head and tail alone.

If you want to remove the head of the fish, position the knife behind the gills and cut at a downward diagonal angle towards the head and through the bone. Flip the fish over and make another diagonal cut. Then, remove and discard the head. To remove the tail, place the knife down where the tail meets the body and cut through the skin and bone. You can easily discard of the tail after doing this.

filleting-fishBegin filleting the fish by cutting behind the head or where the head would have been. Angle the knife towards the tail of the fish and cut down to the bone. Follow the line until you reach just behind the fins where the guts are located. After, turn your fish and run your knife just shy of the fins until you feel it touch bone. Follow the bone until you reach the backbone. Peel the fillet back and run the knife over the backbone. This will sever all of the lateral fish bones. Stop cutting and turn the fish over.

Repeat the first cut that you made behind the fish’s head. Then repeat the second cut near the dorsal fin. Be sure to angle the knife downward. Continue along the length of the fish.

Then, reverse the direction of the fillet knife and follow the bones until you reach the backbone. Again, peel the fillet back to cut around the backbone and through the lateral bones. At this point, you may run the knife through the underside of the fish. Once you reach the belly, you can cut through or over the bones of the belly. If your fillet knife is strong enough, you can just keep cutting right on through. Take a moment to cut though any sinew or skin that is still attached. Now, remove the first fillet. Flip your fish back over to the side that you were originally filleting. Cut the bones around the belly and then cut around the backbone to release the rest of the fillet.

Some people choose to discard the belly portion of the fillet because it is high in fat and generally cooks faster than the rest of the fish. If you don’t mind the extra fat, you can just get straight to removing the skin and bones.

Take a moment to clean off your knife and then place your fillet skin-side down and place the knife at the tail end of the fish between the skin and the meat. Slowly and gently run the knife along the length of the fillet. Again, be sure to angle the knife downward and firmly grip the skin as you cut so that the fish doesn’t slide away. You’ve now skinned your fish. If you like eating the skin, you can skip this step and remove the fish scales with a fish scaler.

Deboning Your Catch

Deboning your fish is very important as bones present a choking hazard and put you at risk for other internal injuries if you eat them. Wipe any residue from skinning your fish off of the knife. Return your knife to the area at which you removed the fillet from the underside of the fish where the guts are. Gently stroke the knife downwards to locate the fine bones. Many of the fine bones stop two-thirds of the way down the fillet. Once you have located the bones, place the knife on the other side of the bone lines until the point is under the bones.

Remove the knife and cut the flesh of the fillet from the bones. Stay as close to the bones as possible to preserve the integrity of your fillet. No one wants to eat something that looks like it’s been pre-chewed.


Once you are done filleting your fish, it is ready for cold storage or cooking. Do you have a favorite way to fillet your fish or a knife that you prefer to use? Have tips for making filleting even easier? Comment or drop us a line.

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