How to Clean and Fillet California Sheephead

The California Sheephead is a favorite fishing target of many SoCal spearos. The carnivorous bottom fish species are not only large, strong, and fun to catch underwater but are also tasty.

Spearfishing California Sheephead How to Clean and Fillet
Here’s a large California Sheephead I caught off the coast of Catalina Island.

Catching the California Sheephead

California sheepheads have big scales and can grow large over a long period of time. What’s more entertaining about these fish species is that they are hermaphrodites. Their family changes sex from female to male when they reach a certain size.

Fishing for sheephead is easy and not as time-consuming as other fish. They may be big, but with the help of the right gear and sufficient knowledge, you have the best chance to catch and cook the sheephead.

In spearing or hunting this fish, looking near rocks and kelp beds will help you land your catch, as they are usually found swimming at a range of 3-30 meters deep.

When hunting for males, look out for a black red-eyed fish with a red-pink midsection and a prominent “sheep-like” head. Females have all pink skin with a white underbelly and are smaller than the male member of this fish family.

How to Clean and Fillet California Sheephead

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What to Prepare

Fishing for California Sheephead sure is fun, but cleaning and filleting them up is just as exciting. Here’s a list of tools you’re going to need to clean and cut up your favorite game fish, the California Sheephead, for a tasty meal to prepare in the kitchen and share with your friends. 

In cleaning and butchering California sheephead or basically any fish, make sure to clean your tools thoroughly before using them on your prized catch. The tool cleaning process can be done by soaking them in bleach and washing them with dishwashing soap before rinsing. 

How to Clean California Sheephead

Fishing for California Sheephead sure is fun, but cleaning and filleting them up can be just as exciting. Here’s how you can clean and cut up your favorite game fish, the California Sheephead, for a tasty meal to share and enjoy with your friends.

Step 1: Braining

Step 1 How to Clean and Fillet California Sheephead

As a spearo, you want to pay respect to the fish you shoot and make them suffer a lot less than expected. To make sure your sheephead is not internally suffering, you want to brain it by poking and wiggling your finger right where the spine and its head meet. This step is to really make sure it’s dead before you descale and cut it up.

Step 2: Draining

Step 2 How to Clean and Fillet California Sheephead

Next, on the top of the gills of all fish is where you can find its heart. Besides, the heart are the arteries you want to cut to allow the blood to drain out fully for a cleaner-tasting fish meat. Some people prefer to pull the gills instead of cutting, which is fair trade as well. 

Step 3: Gutting

Step 3 How to Clean and Fillet California Sheephead

In gutting bigger California sheepheads, you can try leaving the collar behind. Cut and remove the gills to allow the meat to have integrity.

Step 4: Icing

Step 4 How to Clean and Fillet California Sheephead

After draining and gutting the sheephead fish, you want to pack it in ice for a couple of days for better quality, especially if you plan to sashimi the fish.

Step 5: Scaling

Step 5 How to Clean and Fillet California Sheephead

After icing the fish, use your fish scaler to remove the big scales on the sheephead, especially if you want to eat it with skin or make some chicharron. Using a fork or a spoon works right as well.

Step 6: Soup Fish Parts

Step 5 How to Clean and Fillet California Sheephead

You may then opt for cutting through and removing the collar, belly flap, and head with your cleaver while minding where your fingers are as you make the cut. They make great ingredients to cook a phenomenal soup. 

How to Fillet California Sheephead

Just like any fish, a way to fillet California sheephead will need you to familiarize basic fish anatomy and careful handling of your fillet knife. 

Step 1: Initial Cut at the Spine

how to fillet ca sheephead step 1

Find the spine of the California sheephead and make the initial cut all the way down to the tail. You don’t have to race with time during this process. Make sure you ultimately show respect to the fish by utilizing all of the parts. 

Step 2: Removing one side of the fish meat

how to fillet ca sheephead step 2

Lift the mean as you go along the spine, removing one side of the fish from the spine. Along the way, you will encounter a rib bone, which is present in California sheepheads and other fish. You want to use a bigger knife or a cleaver to cut through the rib. 

Do the same thing on the other side of the fish.

Step 3: Remove the Ribs

how to fillet california sheephead step 3

In removing the ribs, you want to put your knife under it and cut your knife up towards the ribs. Make sure you control the knife and mind your fingers to avoid injuries.

Step 4: Fish Skin Removal (optional)

how to fillet california sheephead step 4

If you want to skin the fish, take your knife, and grip the tail or the skin while sliding your knife in between. You may poke a hole in the skin for a stable hold. Get the knife started between the skin and the meat and wiggle the skin back and forth while keeping the knife in place. 

Step 5: Cleaning Debris

how to fillet california sheephead step 5

Lastly, rid your fillet of any debris manually and wash it with water for thorough cleaning.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is California sheephead good to eat?

Yes. California sheephead is one of the tastiest fish you can eat as sashimi or prepare with a recipe. In fact, California sheephead catch and cook is one of the most popular activities most SoCal spearos love. 

How do you catch sheepshead in California?

Sheepheads are suckers for anchovies, baby octopus, and squid, whether frozen, fresh, or alive. This fish species are rarely aggressive and will tap the bait before trying to eat it whole. You want to use a tackle that helps you feel the sensitive bites and give you the power to wrestle larger ones from structures like rocks and reefs. 

Insider Advice

Catching and taking home California sheepheads are regulated by California Fish and Wildlife. Based on their regulations, you can only bag and possess five fish with a size limit of 12 inches in total length.

Fishing for sheephead seaward of the 75-fathom depth contour (450 feet) is prohibited. Additionally, this species’ commercial fishing has bimonthly trip limits, and the fishery is closed off from March to April due to closures for rockfish.

Always equip yourself with knowledge and follow the regulations when spearfishing the SoCal waters. 

Jon Stenstrom
Founder & Angler
Jon Stenstrom is a fishing enthusiast. He has over 25 years of fishing experience, and 6 years of spearfishing experience, and is currently learning how to boat. Jon has his Open Water PADI Certification and FII Freediver Level 1 Certification. Jon has traveled the world to fish and dive, most notably in the Great Barrier Reef, Baja Mexico, Thailand, and Malaysia. More Articles
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