Cleaning catfish can be simple, fast, and relatively clean - or it can be difficult, slow, and filthy.
The difference is entirely in technique.
If you want to know how to clean catfish quickly with a minimum of fuss, we’re here to help, and we’ll go through the process one step at a time to get you started.
Table of Contents (clickable)
Keep the Smaller Cats and Release the Big Ones
Experienced catfishermen can tell you that smaller cats simply taste better than their larger kin. I can attest to that fact, having eaten my fair share (and then some) of catfish. Above five pounds or so, they acquire a stronger taste, and in my experience, a few larger fillets just aren’t worth it.
Add to that the need to preserve a breeding population, and you’ve got two good reasons to release any trophy catfish you catch.
A final reason to release the big cats is contamination. PCBs are present in higher levels in bigger catfish, and they’re quite dangerous to your health! Always obey local fish advisories, including cleaning and consumption guidelines.
Whatever your choice, you’ve found yourself in the enviable position of having a cooler full of cats.
Let’s start with the basics first to get you off on the right foot.
Proper preparation is going to go a long way toward awesome fillets, and if you follow a few simple guidelines, your fish fry is going to turn out a lot better.
Ice, ice, baby
Keep your cooler well stocked with ice, typically two times as much as fish. As water collects, don’t drain it! The experts from Yeti insist that the water helps inculcate the remaining ice, keeping the temperature as low as it can get.
You want bone-chilling, hand-numbing cold for the cats you keep, as this will keep them fresh longer, slow their metabolism to a crawl, and kill them humanely prior to cleaning.
Yes, catfish can live for hours in a bucket or empty cooler, but so can dangerous bacteria.
Be smart and use ice.
Beyond icing your fish, you want to make sure that everything you’ll use to clean them, including your hands, is well-washed in warm soap and water.
You can make extra sure about this by mixing 1 cup of bleach in 1 gallon of water and use this solution to rinse everything down before you start. This diluted bleach cleaning solution will kill any bugs that might be lurking on your cutting board or knife, and it won’t burn your skin (though it might damage your clothes).
I strongly recommend a large, professional-grade plastic cutting board.
Don’t skimp on the cutting board.
They’re relatively inexpensive, big enough to let you work on your fish without feeling crowded, and exceptionally easy to clean. That all adds up to an easier time for you and a better end result.
Knife and glove
No catfish cleaning tool is more important than a proper knife, and while opinions vary on which one is the best option, we’ve reviewed some of our favorites before--and any of them will do a good job: Best Fish Fillet Knife
My recommendation is the Rapala4 Soft Grip Fillet. It’s priced right and designed perfectly for the task at hand.
A good knife like this Rapala is essential.
In general, you want a comfortable, grippy handle and a long, flexible, razor-sharp blade. I want to emphasize that flexibility is really important, and you’ll run into problems with a stiff knife no matter how sharp it is.
The Rapala has everything you need on a good fillet knife, and it gets very sharp in no time at all.
A cut-proof glove can save you a trip to the ER.
A sharp knife is a safe knife, but accidents happen.
For added safety, please consider a cut-proof Kevlar glove. You’ll wish you had these the first time you stab your hand or slice a finger, and that’s a lot easier to do when working on a slippery cat than you think.
To Fillet or Skin: Which is Better?
For generations, catfish anglers skinned their catch, removing that tough, leathery layer before working on fillets or leaving smaller fish whole.
Now, if you do want to keep some whole catfish for frying, this is the only way to go, but the vast majority of anglers want firm, beautiful fillets for the oil - and I’m with them!
Skinning a catfish is a real pain, as I know first hand. And since skinning can take a few minutes, it dramatically increases the time you’ll need to spend to clean your fish. That’s something no one wants.
So do yourself a favor and skip straight to the knife.
Once you do, you'll never go back to skinning.
How to Clean and Fillet a Catfish
OK - you’ve got a cooler full of well-iced catfish, your cutting board, knife, and glove. Your hands are immaculately clean, and you’re ready to go.
There are many competing methods to accomplish this task. We’ve chosen the fastest and most efficient.
Some people like to de-slime their cats before cleaning. That makes much less of a mess and makes them easier to handle as well.
If you’d like to do this, just rub them down with an old towel or something with a bit of texture. Most of the slime will be gone.
Cut along a diagonal line from the front of the dorsal fin to the front of the pelvic fin. This will keep you behind most of the internal organs, reducing the chance for a puncture.
You’ll need to apply some pressure as you’ll be cutting through the ribs.
As you cut deeper, you’ll feel your knife hit the backbone. At that point, turn the edge toward the tail, and run the knife along the backbone toward the rear of the fish. Stop about an inch from the tail.
Flip the fillet over, and using the flexibility of the knife to your advantage, run the edge along the connected flap of skin near the tail back toward the fat end of the fillet. You’re looking to separate the meat from the skin here, and with just a little practice, it’s easy to do.
Flip the fish over and repeat on the opposite side.
This method leaves a few pieces of rib on the inside of each fillet. You’ll want to use your knife to carefully cut these away.
There’s still some meat left on the head. You can remove this in much the same way and keep these smaller fillets as well.
Some folks skip this step, but I never like to waste meat.
Wash the fillets in cold water to remove any blood or slime.