Learn how to clean a catfish before your next fish fry. Joe Cermele
Why should you learn how to clean a catfish? Because it doesn’t matter what kind of catfish live in your local waters—they’re all delicious. From big flatheads and blues to medium channel cats, to tiny bullheads, catfish are the star of any fish fry. In most of the country, you can catch these whiskered brawlers year-round, and if you’re new to fishing they’re a great target for beginners. All you really need to connect is a hook, sinker, and a juicy worm, chunk of shad, or other catfish bait. But what happens after the cooler is full? The truth is, cleaning a catfish for the table isn’t all that difficult, you just need to understand that their size will dictate the process, and you’ll need a little more than a nice, sharp fillet knife. Here’s a breakdown for cleaning any sized catfish.
How to Clean a Catfish: Small Catfish
Many people have an aversion to eating fish on the bone. If I’m being honest, I’m one of them. As much as I appreciate the skill it takes a good chef to make a whole snapper or seabass—and while I recognize that leaving bones in adds flavor—I still prefer my fish filleted. You can get boneless fillets out of any size catfish, however, with fish measuring approximately 15 inches or less, you’ll often end up with more meat on the plate if you skin them and leave the bones in. It also makes life easier when you’ve got a mess of little bullhead or channel cats to prep for a big fish fry, which is why it’s so common in the South to see bone-in, tail-on catfish served in restaurants. This preparation is actually very simple, but you’ll want a pair of small locking-vise grips, as well as a pair of gloves that will allow you to hold a slimy cat without it slipping from your mitts.
Step 1: Score the fish and Start Skinning
Grab the fish’s lower lip with the vise grip and lock it shut. Now make a cut from just forward of the fish’s dorsal fin, down behind the gill plate, ending at the belly. Repeat this cut on the opposite side of the catfish. Next, place the knife on the fish’s back just behind the dorsal fin, and make a cut downward at a 45-degree angle toward the head. Cut until your knife hits the backbone, but do not sever the backbone.
Step 2: Skin the Catfish
Remove the vise grip from the fish’s mouth and grab it by the head with your gloved hand. Use the vise grip to grab the edge of the skin along the fish’s side and start peeling it back. You just want to get it started at this point, and you’ll want to re-grab it along the main cut working it loose on all sides of the fish. Once the edges of the skin have been loosened all the way around, grab the edge at the fish’s back. Slowly pull the vise grip toward the tail and the fish’s head in the opposite direction. The skin should peel off smoothly leaving nothing but exposed meat and the tail.
Step 3: Pull the Guts Out and Clean the Catfish
Once the skin is off, grab the head and body in opposite hands and bend the body downward to snap the spine. Pull the head and body apart slowly so that all the entrails remain with the fish’s head. Rinse the skinned body and tail with fresh water to remove any blood or bits on entrails. The entire piece is now ready to be battered and dropped in hot grease.
How to Clean a Catfish: Large Catfish
What qualifies as a big catfish? That’s a matter of opinion, though, for our purposes, we’ll say any fish weighing more than 5 pounds. Once you start catching cats with some real mass, skinning them with vise grips becomes unnecessary, because you can just remove the skin after filleting. Likewise, if you’ve got a 30-pound blue cat, you won’t find a deep fat frier big enough to drop it in if you went the bone-in, tail-on route. Once you get above the 10-pound mark, you’re likely cutting the meat up into smaller pieces, so filleting is the way to go. There’s really not much difference between filleting a catfish and any other fish, though there are two extra baby steps, and if you don’t have a good set of fillet gloves, get some. Not only do catfish love to slip and slide on the cutting surface, but you’ll want to protect your hands from potential jabs from the dorsal and pectoral fin spines.
Step 1: Cut Off the Fins
Using a pair of kitchen scissors, tin snips, or cutters, clip off the pectoral fins on both sides close to the body. This will ensure that the fish lays flat on the cutting board, as their thick fins often cause them to be propped up, which makes them rest at an awkward angle. Feel behind the gills for a hard spot. Run your finger along it until you find the end where the body is soft. This is where you want to start cutting, as cutting into that hard plate will dull your knife.
Step 2: Fillet The Catfish
Make an incision diagonally from the back to the stomach. Reinsert the tip of the knife in the fish’s back where the previous cut starts. Now, run the knife tip down the back to the tail. Keep this cut shallow and keep the blade above the dorsal and adipose fins. This shallow cut will serve as a guide.
With a firm grip on the catfish’s head, begin running the knife back through the previous cut. Keep the cutting angle shallow. You want to feel bones against the back side of the blade as you work toward the belly. When you reach the rib cage, you can cut through it on smaller fish or run the knife along the ribs to keep them intact on larger fish. Continue working down the body until the fillet separates from the body. Repeat the entire process on the opposite side of the fish.
Step 3: Clean the Catfish Fillets
To skin and clean the catfish fillets, place them skin side down on the board. Insert the knife tip at a shallow angle near the thin tail end. Angle the blade so it’s almost parallel to the board. With your other hand, get a firm grasp on the tip of the fillet. Pull the fillet toward you while gently sliding the knife in the opposite direction. Be careful not to cut too deeply or you’ll leave skin on the meat. Keep sliding the blade forward until the meat separates from the skin.
Though less of an issue with smaller cats, 10-plus pounders often have excess fat on their fillets just under the skin. Check your skinned fillets for this off-white, gelatinous fat. If you see some, gently run your knife under it shallowly to remove it. This will help reduce any fishy or muddy taste.
Rinse the fillets to remove any blood. Cook them whole if they’re on the smaller side or chunk them up into catfish nuggets for the fryer if they’re big fillets.
How to Skin a Catfish: Alternate Method Using a Nail
Back in your grandpa’s day, skinning a catfish meant nailing the sucker to a backyard pine tree and stripping the skin with pliers. It doesn’t take much to bring the old-timers’ technique into the 21st century for the same results. Here’s how to clean a catfish with a nail.
Score the Catfish with a Knife
Place a 3-foot-long 2×6 board on a level, waist-high surface. A truck tailgate works well. Using a knife, score the skin all the way around the head, just in front of the cat’s gill plates. Make another slit down the fish’s back.
Pull the Skin off With Pliers
Drive a 16-penny nail through the fish’s skull to secure it to the board. Cut off its dorsal fin. Brace the board against your waist, with the tail pointing toward you. Grasp the skin with Fish Skinning Pliers and pull it down to the tail and off. —T. Edward Nickens