Give a man a fish and he has food for a day. Teach him to fish and you can get rid of him all weekend. Zenna Schaffer

Jun 05, 2020 | Gerry Doyle


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True story … My son, brother, his two sons and I went fishing on the lake.  We found a nice spot amongst the reeds, got comfortable, found our spot on the boat and cast our rods.  An hour or so later my wife came along in her kayak.  She was alarmed and came out to rescue us.  She saw that we were obviously caught up in the reeds, probably run aground, and since we were all sitting in silence she assumed that not only were we in distress but had probably had some sort of disagreement since we were not talking to each other. 

We explained that we were fishing.  She asked how many fish we had caught.  We told her none yet. 

Now, had we caught a fish, we would have had to fillet the fish. Hence the following step by step procedure for filleting a fish.  Same procedure if you happen to purchase your fish from the local monger.

The first step is a bit messy and best done on the boat immediately after the catch.  You need to bleed the fish immediately.  This is done by using your fishing knife to cut into the fish under the fish gills and letting it bleed out entirely.  This is a very important step otherwise the fish will not taste good and be messy on the cutting board.  To skip this step simply go to the local fish monger who is selling fresh fish on ice.

Second step is to descale the fish.  This is easy.  Hold the fish by the tail and move the back side (not sharp side) of a knife against the fish from tail to head.  Several strokes and it is done.  Alternatively ask your fish monger to do it for you.  This is called descaling the fish and every fish market will do this for you.

Step three is a bit dangerous depending on where you are.  You should be safe at the Cheese Boutique but on a lake north of Killarney things could get a bit iffy.  Step three is gutting the fish.  Again, using your fishing knife, begin an incision on the belly of the fish from tail to head.  This opens up the fish.  Then with a gloved hand reach in and pull out all of the guts.  Make sure you clean it out well, then rinse the fish well in the lake water or sink.  This is best done over the side of the boat.  The dangerous part about this step is that bears love the smell and will be attracted to you (because your gloves smell) and the area you are in (because it smells).  If you have ever had a bear encounter you know it is best not to smell like their favourite meal.  Serious on that, so keep it in mind.

The fourth step is somewhat optional … sort of.  Chop the head off the fish just below the gills.  I say optional because depending on how you are going to cook or serve the fish you may want to leave the head on the fish.  Many restaurants will leave the head on the fish, cook it in their special recipe, then serve it to your table with the head still on.  Sometimes the server will show off their skills and fillet it at your table.  Personally I think it is great to order a Branzino and do it all myself at the table … but I digress.

The fifth step needs to be done properly.  Beginning at the tail (not the head) insert your knife along the spine (that is the top part of the fish) with an incision that is only a couple centimeters or so, then slowly slide your knife towards the head of the fish, gently lifting the fish meat as you go but not lifting or touching or sawing through the bones.  Then following the same procedure, cut away the head, then similar incision along the stomach, ending with a similar incision at the tail.  After all four incisions have been made carefully lift your fillet away from the bones, rib cage, etc.  You now should have a fillet in your hand if it is not yet cooked, or on your plate if you are enjoying a freshly baked Branzino. 

Step six involves removing all of the bones from the fish.  In one easy motion simply grasp the tail end of the bone cage and gently lift it towards the head.  It should easily rise as you lift it (especially easy if fish is already cooked at this stage) all the way to the head.  You have now filleted the fish.  If in a restaurant simply discard the head, etc. onto the plate provided.  At home you may wish to keep it in order to make fish soup.

Lastly you may wish to use your fish knife to trim away excess fat and other parts that you do not wish to eat. 

Although you may never go fishing and thus not be involved in the first few steps it is nonetheless worth knowing, especially if you’re charged with making the purchase at the Fish Monger.  If you would like to try out a recipe at home then skipping to step 4 may be where you begin.  The final two steps however are arguably necessary for everyone who eats fish to know. 

So, when you find yourself in isolation this summer and practicing social distancing on the lake, you may want to keep this blog handy.