Filleting bass, whether we’re talking about smallmouth, largemouth, or stripers, is an easy, quick process if you know what you’re doing.
In overpopulated fisheries, culling small bass like this will improve the size of the remaining fish.
But everyone starts somewhere, and you may be unsure of how to turn your fresh fish into two beautiful fillets.
There’s nothing wrong in admitting that!
But there is a lot of bad information out there, including recommendations to scale and gut your fish prior to filleting. We’re not sure where these ideas got started, but we’re pretty sure they’re just unnecessary work!
Table of Contents (clickable)
Keeping Bass: A Misunderstanding Masquerading as a Controversy
If you survey bass fisherman, most don’t keep their catch - ever - irrespective of size and their local population.
There’s a strong taboo around that in most places, and most folks I talk to are worried that bass make for poor eating and that keeping them will cause the fishing to decline.
The truth, however, is that both small- and largemouth are excellent table fare, and in lakes, ponds, and rivers with an overabundance of small fish, culling some of them actually improves the stock by freeing up scarce resources.
Wildlife biologists use culling to improve the general size and quality of bass in many fisheries, and for most of them, this is the go-to method for regenerating a lake. As the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, & Parks reminds us, “Catch and release is a wonderful thing, unless you want to grow big bass in your pond. Contrary to popular belief, only a few good female bass are necessary to provide enough young bass to restock a pond each year.”
In crowded fisheries, by removing bass 14 inches or less in the spring, you can help ensure a stable, healthy population of bruisers.
That’s a help - not a hindrance - to the development of trophies.
Just a few simple steps and a bit of preparation will help you get the best from your bass.
Lots of ice
While you’re catching and storing fish you plan to keep, you want at least two times as much ice as fish. Dropping below that ratio can compromise cooling, leading to a spoiled catch. Don’t flirt with food poisoning or ruined fish: use enough ice!
For good fried fish, you need fresh fillets. And that means lots of ice on the water!
And as water begins to accumulate in your cooler, leave it alone.
The experts from Yeti insist that the water helps insulate the remaining ice, keeping the temperature chilly.
The ideal temp for keeping fish fresh in the sun is low enough to be painful when you plunge your hand into the ice/water mix.
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 be extra sure about food safety 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).
It makes sense to use a large, professional-grade plastic cutting board.
A good cutting board will make your work easier and your clean-up a snap.
Relatively inexpensive, they give you plenty of work surface and are easy to clean up afterward.
Knife and glove
No fish 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.
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 fish than you think.
How to Fillet Bass
You’ve kept your fish iced properly, you’ve got your tools ready, and everything is scrupulously clean.
You’ll sometimes see advice to scale your fish before you fillet, but you won’t be keeping the skin, so that’s just messy, unnecessary work. Similarly, some folks advise you to gut your fish before filleting, but there’s no need for that at all.
If you do make a mistake and cut into the stomach area of your fish, just wash your fillets gently with cool water.
Make a long cut just behind the gill plate and pectoral and pelvic fins. Feel for the spine and stop when you hit it.
This will be one end of your fillet.
Using the tip of your knife, and starting on the dorsal side of your bass, work your knife back along the spine, using a sawing motion to separate the fillet from the back of the bass.
Your goal here isn’t to free the fillet but rather to separate it from the back of the fish.
When you reach the tail, stop roughly 2 inches from the fin, and push the knife all the way through, separating the fillet from the spine at the tail. Continue working all the way down to the tail fin, cleanly separating the small end of the fillet.
Using your thumb to lift the dorsal side of the fillet, start running your knife down the fillet and against the spine to free it.
You’ll feel the ribs, too, and using the knife’s flexibility, you want to work across them - not through them. I like to keep the belly meat, but some people choose to discard it.
If you do this properly, you will never enter the stomach cavity of the bass.
With the fillet removed, place it skin down.
Starting at the tail end, run your knife just above the skin. A flexible, sharp blade is essential for this step!
Feeling the skin, “shave” the fillet to remove it.
Repeat this process on the other side, and gently wash both fillets to remove any scale, slime, or blood.
For an excellent tutorial, check this video out: