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How to Easily Fillet a Catfish - Wolf & Iron

How to Easily Fillet a Catfish

We have sat on the river bank and caught catfish with pin hooks. The time has come to harpoon a whale.” – John Hope, African-American educator, 1868-1936

Growing up in the South (and on a river no less), catfish were a common sight and a pretty common meal for many. When I was a boy I used to go down to the old bridge crossing the river and see who was fishing. On many days there would be a black man, or a few throughout the week, tossing in a line with a few hanging over the sides. I don’t remember many of them bringing up anything worth mentioning but they would catch their share and we would chat a little. But there was one man, a neighbor we called Mr. Charlie, who would occasionally haul in some monster catfish. A portion of his property let out into the river and he would leave the catfish in the water, with a rope going through its mouth and the other end tied to a tree. As people would come down to the river to fish they would stop by and he would haul it out to their astonishment. I was a kid, but to me these catfish were as big as dogs. I read in an old newspaper that he caught an 80 pounder back in the day.

How to Easily Fillet a Catfish

Fair Warning: If you’re of the squeamish type be aware the following article has some blood. Albeit, fish blood, which is basically juice. Alright then, if you pass out or puke at your desk don’t say you weren’t warned. –

“Fish, for sport only, not for meat. Fish meat is practically a vegetable.” – Ron Swanson

Mr. Swanson and I must part ways on this one point. I happen to love fish and catfish is one of my favorites. Some people choose to skin the catfish and gut it first, which is necessary if you want to fry it whole, but I prefer the fillets so this method seems to work pretty well.

Step 1: Get to know your meal

Unfortunately they stare at you like this the entire time.

For a fillet you only need the area behind the dorsal fin (top)

Step 2: Prepare the work surface

The tools needed to fillet a catfish

Tools Needed:

  • A very sharp fillet knife
  • Pliers
  • Paper towel or damp cheese cloth
  • Gloves (optional)

The paper towel is just to prevent sliding and keep blood from going everywhere. I also like to wear a pair of disposable gloves because the rubbery material helps to grip the fish and they keep me from having any kind of lingering fishy smell.

Tip: If your fish is curled up and stiff, you can straighten it out with a little force.

Step 3: Making the initial cuts

You are going to start just behind the dorsal fin (top) and cut down the side behind the pelvic fin.

Start on the top of the catfish behind the dorsal fin

Continue down the side behind the pelvic fin. Repeat on the other side.

Step 4: Cutting out the fillet

Push the knife through the back of the fish and out the belly. It should be pretty close to the spine which you will follow towards the tail. Repeat on the other side.

Pushing the knife through the top of the back and through the belly.

Follow the spine towards the tail. Cut through just before you get to the tail fin.

Step 5: Removing the skin

Now that the fillets are removed it will take a little skill to get the skin off. By keeping the knife close to the cutting surface you should be able to separate it. If you accidentally cut through, just use your pliers and carefully remove the skin.

The fillets are looking good.

The skin has to be removed before they are cooked.

Carefully start the knife between the skin and the fillet meat

With some practice you can get all the way through without cutting through the skin.

Step 6: Wash and cook or freeze

Once the fillets are ready, wash them with cold water, preferably with gloves off so as not to get any fishy goop on them, and season and cook or get them in the freezer as quickly as possible.

Catfish blackening in the skillet.

Step 7: Go in after your hooks

Many times the catfish will swallow the hooks and you will have to get dirty to get them back. Simply cut open the gut and rake around with your knife and they should emerge. A pair of needle nose pliers may be necessary if it is hooked into the cartilage.

Final Thoughts

Not only is catfish delicious, they can be caught on just about any type of stinky bait and are generally large enough for a meal. Especially for novice fisherman, they are the go-to fish because they can put up a decent fight and you always feel like you caught something substantial. Who knows, you may get lucky and land your own 80 pounder.

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