Northwest Game Recipes       |     home
Field Dressing/Transporting   |   Processing Fish   |   Processing Shellfish

Return to Handling Fish
Processing Fish

Processing Fish

Capt. Clark
October 22d Tuesday 1805

I observe great numbers of Stacks of pounded Netting Salmon - Celilo Falls
Brefore Dalles Dam
Salmon neetly preserved in the following manner,  after Suffiently Dried it is pounded between two Stones fine, and put into a speces of basket neetly made of grass and rushes of better than two feet long and one foot Diamiter, which basket is lined with the Skin of Salmon Stretched and dried for the purpose, in theis it is pressed down as hard as is possible, when full they Secure the open part with the fish Skins across which they fasten tho the loops of the basket.... thus preserved those fish may be kept Sound and Sweet Several years, as those people inform me.

After you have field dressed and transported the fish, there are a number of ways to process the fish for cooking or freezer storage.  At the end of the process the fish will be either left whole, filleted, or made into steaks.  The best approach varies depending on the size of the fish, type of scales, and personal preference.

Whole Fish

Usually small fish are processed whole because too much meat would be lost if filleted. The following are some processing methods:

Small lake and stream trout are best if they are left whole and the only processing needed is to remove the guts, fins, head and tail.  (Removing the head and tail is optional).
Small warm water fish such as crappie, bluegill, perch, and bass can be left whole if the scales, intestine, head and tail are removed.  The scales can be removed by scraping from the tail of the fish to the head. After removing the scales, remove the guts, fins, head and tail.
The recommended approach for removing the dorsal fin is to cut the fin on each side and pull the fin out.  If the fin is cut off with a knife, bones will be left in the fish.
Wash the fish with clean, cold water and dry the fish with a cloth or paper towel.  The fish is now ready to cook or freeze.


Larger fish such as salmon, steelhead, and halibut are prime fish for cutting into steaks for grilling.  To make steaks from the fish you should:

Wash the fish before and after the removal of the guts and dorsal fin.
The steaks are then cut in one to two inch thick pieces perpendicular to the overall length of the fish.  
The steaks should be cleaned and then prepared for freezing or cooking.

Salmon steaks are delicious but you need to work around the bones and skin while eating them.


If done carefully, fish can be filleted without removing the guts or the scales.  There are various ways to fillet the fish but the simplest is to take the following steps:

Cut into the fish just in front of the tail, lay the knife horizontally and cut toward the front of the fish just above the backbone.
When you reach the ribs, cut through them and continue until you reach the gills.  
Remove the knife and cut vertically down to the backbone and remove the fillet.
Turn the fillet over, skin side down, and using the tip of the fillet knife carve the rib bones away from the meat.
To remove the skin from the meat, place the fillet knife flat and horizontally just above the skin at the tail end of the fillet,
Then slice forward keeping the knife just above the skin.  The resulting fillet should have no bones or skin.  
Wash the fillet with cold, clean water then pat dry with a cloth or paper towel.  (Note:  with an electric fillet knife, this can be done very quickly).

For salmon, steelhead, and trout there is no need to remove the skin from the fillet because the scales are very small.  Leaving the skin on can improve the texture, flavor and moisture content of the fillet during cooking.  Small pin bones that extend outward from the spine to the skin of the fish can be removed with  a pair of needle nosed pliers.  This can be done before or after cooking.

For walleye, bass, and other scaly fish, the skin can be left on if the fish is scaled before the fillets are removed.   However, if the fish have been caught in an area that is contaminated with pesticide, PCBs and other contaminants that concentrate in the fatty tissues of the fish, it is best to remove the skin.  You should check with your State Health Department and fishing regulations to determine if the fish were caught in contaminated areas.

Sturgeon are a little more difficult to fillet because of their size, tough skin and sharp diamond shaped scutes.  To fillet a sturgeon:

Lay it on its side and cut down the back of the fish from the tail to the head.  
Begin your cut just outside the top row of scutes or bony plates that run the length of the fish.  
As you cut through the skin and meat cut around the notocord (central nervous system cord).  
Continue cutting along the length of the fish to carve off the fillet.  
Place the fillet skin side down and slice the skin from the fillet.  
Remove all red and yellow fatty tissue from the meat.  

This method will leave some good meat on the carcass but it is simple.  Note:  Be careful of the scutes - they are sharp.

Freezing & Storage

The whole fish, steak or fillet must be refrigerated at 40 degrees F immediately after being washed and wiped dry.  If you do not plan to use the fish with one to two days, it is recommended that they be frozen.  

Once the fish have been cleaned and dressed there are a number of options for pre-treating and freezing them.  Fish are classified as either fat fish or lean fish and appropriate pre-treatment will reduce flavor change and control rancidity.  For fat fish such as salmon and tuna, pre-treat the fish by dipping them in an ascorbic acid solution for 20 seconds.  The solution is made by dissolving 2 tablespoons of crystalline ascorbic acid in one quart of cold water.  Lean fish such as flounder and freshwater fish should be dipped in a brine solution for 20 seconds to firm the fish.  The brine is made by dissolving 1/4 cup salt in one quart of cold water.

After pre-treatment the fish can be wrapped in moisture and vapor resistant freezer paper or vacuum packed.  Another option is to wrap them tightly in cling plastic wrap that forms a tight skin around the meat.  These wrapped pieces can then be placed in a heavy-duty plastic freezer bag.  Other methods for freezing fish include , ice glaze and water.

Ice Glaze - Place unwrapped fish in the freezer and freeze until the fish is frozen.  Remove the fish and dip it in near-freezing ice water.  Place the fish again in the freezer a few minutes to harden the glaze.  Remove the fish and repeat the glazing until a uniform cover of ice is formed.  Wrap the fish in moisture-vapor resistant freezer paper.

Water - Place the fish in a container, cover with water and freeze.  Wrap the container in freezer paper after it is frozen to reduce evaporation.  (Note:  This method will produce a poorer quality product than using the glaze methods).