How to Clean a Catfish (Step by Step Guide)

While most people think of catfish as slimy, scaly creatures that lurk at the bottom of ponds and lakes, these fish can make for a delicious meal. And with the right preparation, they can be surprisingly easy to clean.

But with their tough skin and sharp dorsal and pectoral fins, it’s no wonder many people are intimidated by the task. Although enjoying a catfish dinner may seem like a messy proposition, it’s not that difficult – as long as you follow a few simple steps.

If you’re looking to add a little variety to your seafood repertoire, or you find yourself with a catfish filet or two, read on for a step-by-step guide on cleaning a catfish.

how to clean a catfish
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What You Need

When cleaning a catfish, you’ll need a few essential supplies.

  • A sharp knife. A paring knife or fillet knife will work fine, but ensure it’s sharpened so you can easily cut through the fish’s skin. Avoid using a dull knife because it is more dangerous than a sharp knife.
  • Paper towels. You’ll need these to pat the fish dry as you clean it.
  • A cutting board. A wooden cutting board is ideal, but a plastic one will work in a pinch.
  • A bowl of ice water. This is for storing the fish once it’s been cleaned. But you can also use it to kill a live fish.
  • Vinegar or salt. These are optional, but they can help to remove any remaining slime from the fish.
  • Baking soda. This is also optional, but it can be used to mask off any lingering smells from the fish.


During the preparation stage, it’s important to have everything you need on hand. This will make the process go much more smoothly.

1. Gather Your Supplies

You’ll need a sharp knife, paper towels, a cutting board, and a bowl of ice water. You may also want to have vinegar or salt on hand and baking soda.

2. Clean Your Tools

Before you start cleaning the fish, it’s important to ensure that all your tools and surfaces are clean. This will help to prevent the spread of bacteria.

3. Prepare Your Work Area

Make sure the cutting board is clean and dry, and set everything up, so you have plenty of space to work. You may also want to wear gloves at this point, as catfish can be quite slimy.

4. Rinse the Catfish

Using cold water, thoroughly rinse off the fish, inside and out. Once the fish is rinsed, it’s time to start cleaning it.

How to Clean Catfish

Cleaning catfish, either channel catfish, live catfish, or any other fish from the catfish species, may seem daunting, but it’s quite simple – as long as you have the right supplies and know what to do.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to clean a catfish.

  1. Step 1: Make an Incision from the Dorsal Fin to the Pelvic Fin

    The first step to cleaning fish is to make an incision along its body, starting from the dorsal fin (the one on its back) down to the pelvic fin (the one on its belly).

    You can do this with a sharp knife or a pair of scissors. You can easily identify the dorsal fin as it is closer to the head, while the pelvic fins are closer to the tail.

  2. Step 2: Secure the Fish

    Catfish have sharp barbs on their fins that can hurt if you’re not careful. To avoid getting poked, it’s best to secure the fish before attempting to clean it.

    You can do this by holding the fish down with a gloved hand or by placing it on a cutting board with the belly facing up. You can also use tongs to help keep the fish in place.

  3. Step 3: Cut from the Spine

    Once you have made an incision along the length of the catfish, you need to cut around its spine.

    You can do this by holding on to the fish’s backbone with your fingers and then using a sharp knife to cut through the flesh on either side. Be careful not to cut too deep, or you will puncture the intestines.

  4. Step 4: Remove the Intestines

    Using a small, sharp knife, make a lengthwise cut along the fish’s belly, from the vent (anus) to the base of the head. Reach in and gently pull out the fish’s intestines using your fingers.

    You may have to do a little wiggling and jiggling to get them all out, but take your time and be careful not to rip them. Once the intestines are removed, you can discard them.

  5. Step 5: Remove the Fins

    Removing the fins from your catfish is an important step in the cleaning process. You’ll need a sharp knife for this task. First, cut behind the gill plate on each side of the fish.

    Then, insert the knife blade into the flesh just above the base of the tail fin and make a cut towards the head. Next, make a similar cut just below the dorsal fin. Finally, use your knife to remove the pectoral fins by slicing them off at the base.

  6. Step 6: Scale the Fish

    The easiest way to do this is to use a pair of needle-nose pliers or a butter knife. Start at the tail and work your way up towards the head, scraping off the scales in the direction that they grow. Keep in mind that the scales on a catfish are very sharp, so be careful not to cut yourself.

  7. Step 7: Fillet the Fish (Optional)

    To get the catfish fillets, you must cut along the lateral line on both sides of the fish with a sharp knife. If you don’t want the meat to have the skin, you can pour hot water on the fish, making it easier for you to pull the skin.

    Cut the head and follow the lateral line down to the tail. You can either remove the fillet in one piece or cut the fillets into smaller portions. You should also be able to feel where the rib cage is and can avoid cutting into that when filleting the fish.

  8. Step 8: Cut off the Head

    Not only does it make the fish less smelly, but it also helps to remove any potential parasites that may be present.

    To remove the head, use a big knife to make a cut behind the gills and then sever the spinal cord. You can then pull the head off with your hands. Alternatively, you can cut the fish in half behind the head and then remove each half of the head separately.

  9. Step 9: Wash the Fish

    After the fish has been gutted and scaled, it’s time to give it a good wash. Fill up your sink or a large bowl with cool water and add a splash of vinegar. Swish the fish around the mixture to remove any lingering blood or debris.

    Rinse the fish off with cool water and pat dry with a paper towel. Your catfish is now ready to be cooked!

  10. Step 10: Cook or Freeze the Fish

    You may have a few options after cleaning catfish. You can cook it or freeze it. If you’re going to cook the fish, there are many different recipes video you can watch available on YouTube. You can fish fry, bake it, or even grill it.

    Experiment and find a cooking method that you like. If you’re going to freeze the fish, it’s important to do it properly. First, wrap the fish tightly in plastic wrap. Then, place it in a freezer bag.

    Remove as much air from the bag as possible before sealing it. Finally, label the bag with the date and type of fish.

Final Thoughts

Enjoying a delicious catfish dinner is a time-honored tradition in many parts of the world. And while cleaning a fish may seem like a daunting task, it’s quite simple.

Also, the same technique can be used to clean a smaller catfish and a bigger catfish. Just follow the steps outlined on how to clean a catfish, and you’ll enjoy a delicious meal in no time!

Diana Nadim
Fishing Expert
Diana began fishing at the age of seven, as it has been a long-time family tradition. From catching small bullheads to catching strippers on the backwaters of Bighorn, she loves to get out in the wild and have a marvelous day on the water. Her dad was an expert angler, and he taught her fishing along with her two siblings. They used to go to the Bighorn River in Montana and Henry’s fork, Idaho. As a pragmatic person, she is obsessed with creating well-researched and practical guides and reviews of the best fishing methods and gear.
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Articles » Freshwater Fishing » How to Clean a Catfish (Step by Step Guide)