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How to Fillet Catfish (in 7 Easy Steps)

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Even if you are a seasoned angler and love to prepare your fish before cooking it, catfish can throw you for a loop. The species has firm skin and bones and is super slimy.

Before you learn about filleting a catfish, make sure you have a sharp flexible fillet knife and cutting surface. Now let’s dive into the steps.

7 Easy Steps to Filleting Catfish

What You’ll Need:

  • cutting board
  • fiillet knife
  • burlap sack or any abrasive cloth
  • sharp broad knife
  • paper towel

Step by Step Guide to Fillet a Catfish

Here’s a step by step guide to filleting catfish. Get your fillet knife ready, we’re filleting catfish today. To get the fillet, you’ll only need the area behind the dorsal fin. Let’s start with cleaning fresh catfish.

  1. Step 1

    First, when cleaning catfish, remove as much of the slime from the catfish as you can. Take a burlap sack or any abrasive cloth and wipe the fish from top to bottom by passing the fabric multiple times.

    This will keep everything cleaner, and you will not have difficulty grabbing the fish as you fillet it. 

  2. Step 2

    Place the catfish on a clean work surface. A large cutting board will do. Then, cut along the fish meat from the adipose fin using the tip of the fillet knife. Make your way upright to the dorsal fin or top fin.

    You will encounter a big wedge of meat right on the front on top of the head. Use your fillet knife to cut around. (You can also start from the top of the catfish to the pelvic fin.) This helps you avoid puncturing the internal organs.

  3. Step 3

    Then cut along the rib cage but don’t cut through them completely. Make sure you don’t puncture any internal organs.

    Also, be careful of the sharp barb found at the end of the dorsal fin when you cut. This may contain toxins.

  4. Step 4

    Use the fillet knife tip to make an incision at the bottom and cut all the way down to the tail fin. Make a horizontal cut above the tail where the fillet ends. 

    The only catfish cleaning tool you’ll need is a knife and a clean cutting board.

  5. Step 5

    Take a sharp, broader, and big knife and make several passes or cuts under the loosened fillet till it comes off. Don’t cut in a hurry. Take your time making the passes, or you may end up with less meat than you want. 

  6. Step 6

    Trim off any fat that is on the edges.

  7. Step 7

    Skin the fillets with a sharp knife. This can take a few minutes. Just use another knife to pin the extended skin down on the work surface and pass another knife between the skin and the meat. You may need to pull the skin off with your hand as well. 

    Then, wash the fillets in cold water and use a paper towel to pat them dry. Now, you have a clean catfish ready for cooking. You just have to repeat the same technique for your next catfish.

  8. Step 8

    Clean up. Dispose of the head, skeleton, and guts properly. These make a great fertilizer in the garden. Then, scrub your counter and cutting board with soap and cold water.

how to fillet catfish
Take your time filleting to get the most meat from the bones.

How to Remove Slime from a Catfish

Besides using a coarse cloth, there are several methods you can use to remove the slime from the fish before you fillet a catfish. You can rub it with a cut-up lemon and hot water. Use fish cleaning gloves for a better grip.

What Happens if You Puncture the Gut?

If you puncture the catfish’s gut when you are filleting it, you will effectively poison it. The damaged gut will release bacteria and enzymes, which will spoil the fish faster. 

You won’t be able to fillet a catfish this way. This is why you have to be aware of the internal organs when cutting. You can do this by cutting a diagonal line to the front of the pelvic fin from the dorsal fin.

What to Do With Catfish Carcasses?

If you are filleting the fish over the water where you caught it, don’t dump the carcass back in. The state you are fishing in may have restrictions against it, and you may end up with a hefty fine.

Instead, take the carcass home and bury it in your flower garden or lawn as a natural fertilizer. The leftover catfish meat, skin, fin, and tail will do a great job making your plants thrive.

These contain a lot of nutrients, such as potassium and nitrogen.

You can also use the catfish carcass to make fish stock and use it in other seafood recipes. The stock will bring out the flavor of the ingredients and make your dishes stand out. An entire rib cage will ensure the best flavor. 

Should You Keep the Big Catfish to Eat?

Bigger catfish especially trophy catfish may look delicious, but the meat is not as tasty as you may think.

Big cats are loaded with pollutants, and the bigger the catfish, the more poisonous it is. It also has high levels of mercury and PCBs, which are harmful to humans.

A smaller catfish (around 3 to 5 pounds) on your fish scales is the perfect size to eat. These fish have a mild and sweet taste and do not taste muddy if they are filleted correctly. Giant catfish should be released in the water after it is caught. 

Do Catfish Feel Pain?

According to neurobiologists, fish do not feel pain as we do. They do not have a conscious awareness of pain because they do not have certain nerve fibers that we have, which are involved in the intense sensation of pain. 

Best Way to Preserve Catfish after Catching It

Got a live fish? If you plan on filleting the fish onshore and have a long day of fishing planned, store it in ice or it’ll start to spoil. Use crushed or flaked ice to increase the surface area contact with the fish.

Just cover the bottom of a cooler with the ice, place the fish over it and cover it with more ice.

You can cool it faster by making an ice slurry using seawater. Just remember to add more ice as the day progresses to replace the ice that melts. Use ice that is made from drinking water or water that you are 100% sure is clean. 

When you return home, store the fish in the coldest part of your refrigerator in a container that won’t leak. Freeze it if you don’t plan on cooking it soon. Save it for next time and double the cooking time to cook frozen fish properly. 

Best Way to Store Catfish Fillets

First, rinse and dry one catfish fillet using a paper towel. Place it in a Ziploc bag and press out all of the air before zipping it closed.

After that, place the bag on top of a plate that is lined with ice and place more ice on top before popping the plate in the refrigerator. This technique should keep the fish fresh for three to four days.

Make sure your hands are clean, or you may inadvertently transfer bacteria to the fish and skin which may spoil it quickly.

Plus, do not stack the fillets on top of one another in the refrigerator. That will only expose them to each other’s moisture and create a bacteria-friendly environment.

Plus, cover the fish before storing it. Your refrigerator is quite dry, and you don’t want your fish to dry out completely. This will come in handy if you keep the fish whole i.e., complete with a dorsal fin, tail, and skin. 

Catfish Recipe

Ingredients 

  • 4 to 6 ounces of fillets
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • All-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp of unsalted butter
  • ½ a cup of dried white wine
  • 2 tbsp of capers (drained and rinsed)
  • Two cloves of garlic (finely chopped)
  • Three cups of salad greens
  • ½ a cup of fresh parsley

Preparation 

  1. Pat the clean catfish fillets dry and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Dredge the fillets in the flour in a shallow bowl and shake off the excess.
  3. Heat 1 tbsp of butter and olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.
  4. Add the fillets to the pan and cook your fish fry till the meat turns opaque. This should take 3 minutes for each side.
  5. Transfer the cooked fish to a plate and cover with foil.
  6. Add garlic to the same skillet and cook till it turns golden brown.
  7. Remove the skillet from the stove and sprinkle the lemon zest, lemon juice, and wine to it.
  8. Place the skillet back on the heat again and still till the wine reduces slightly. This should take 2 minutes tops.
  9. Season the sauce with salt and pepper.
  10. Toss the greens in a bowl with a tbsp of olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  11. Add 1 tbsp of butter to the sauce in the skillet and stir till it melts. 
  12. Distribute the fillets into different plates and pour the sauce on top of each.
  13. Wipe the skillet clean and put it over high heat before adding parsley and capers.
  14. Fly to a crisp and sprinkle over the fish as a garnish. 
  15. Serve with lemon wedges and salad. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are catfish slimy?

The slime protects the scales and fins underneath, and since this species has fewer scales, it has a thicker layer of slime compared to other fish. The coating protects it from bacteria and also heals wounds.

Is catfish poison lethal to humans?

Most catfish species use venom to protect themselves, and some in North America have a sting that can be quite painful. Some can even kill a fully grown man. 

Is it ok to eat catfish?

Most of today’s catfish are farm raised catfish, so they are a clean source of protein. Catfish that are caught in the wild usually have a muddy taste because of their high fat content.

The flavor of farmed varieties is mild and sweet in comparison. Catfish make great Texas style fried catfish.

Where should I not touch catfish?

The whiskers of a live catfish are not poisonous so you can touch those without fear. The dorsal and pectoral fins can give a nasty sting. These are located right behind the head on either side of the fish and top behind the head as well.

What type of knife should be used to filleting catfish?

You can use an electric knife or a regular fillet knife depending on your skills. Just make sure the blade is sharp enough, or you can have a nasty accident. A dull knife can slip easily.

Do catfish have bones?

Yes, the fish has large, orderly bones, which can be easy to remove if you remove the head first. However, you might find a few small bones when cleaning.

What does catfish skin taste like?

The cooked skin doesn’t have many flavors, so it is often left on before the fish is cooked.

Why is catfish soaked in milk?

The milk removes the fishy taste before it is cooked. Simply soak the fish in milk for an hour before you cook it.

The milk doesn’t mask the smell or soaks it up from the flesh. It reverses the chemical reaction that produces that fishy smell.

How can I tell that my catfish has spoiled?

Just smell and take a look at the fish. The fish will smell sour, will feel slimy to the touch, and will have a duller color than when you first caught it or bought it.

That should be enough to tell you that it has spoiled.

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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Articles » Freshwater Fishing » How to Fillet Catfish (in 7 Easy Steps)