Athens Review, Athens, Texas

May 11, 2013

MATT WILLIAMS: Time for a good ol’ fashioned fish fry

Cleaning tips for getting it from the water to the skillet

Athens Daily Review

Athens — Fish ranks pretty high on the menu at 1070 CR 719. My wife probably likes it better than I do, and that's a good thing. Not one time in 18 years of marriage has she filed a complaint about my passion for catching things with fins. In fact, she would probably tell you she can't get me out the door soon enough when catfish, crappie or bream are on the agenda for the day, particularly where there is an Igloo riding shotgun my the fishin' rig.

Jan and I have sampled a wide variety of fish from both freshwater and salt over the years. We like them fixed just about any way, so long they are cooked.

Fish aren't just good to eat. Studies have shown that fish meat free of mercury and other contaminants is healthy for the body. If you need a reason to keep a few on your next trip, that one is as good as any.

As is the case with wild game, fish will only taste as good as it is cared for once it leaves the water. It is equally important that the meat be diced up properly at the cleaning table, and packaged the right way to prevent it from burning during an extended stay in the freezer.

Here are a few helpful fish cleaning tips:

Getting Started

• Caring for the catch: Live fish are fine swimming around a livewell or bait box, but keep in mind they are perishable. It is important to get them on ice quickly once they die.

• Do it outdoors: Cleaning fish is a messy, bloody job that should always be performed outdoors. It would be wise to choose a spot near a source of clean water rinsing the meat, filling freezer bags and cleaning up knives and other utensils you are done.

• Tools you will need:

— A fillet knife with a thin, flexible blade will enable you to make precise cuts close to bone so you don't waste or butcher the meat. An electric knife will help you tackle large jobs in fast order. Always keep knives super sharp.

— A flat surface for cleaning. A cutting board is ideal, but you can also use a piece of old plywood or 2X12.

— A tablespoon, butter knife or commercial fish scaler for removing scales.

— A an ice chest with ice for storing cleaned fish before bagging.

— Plenty of freezer bags.

— A trash bag or bucket for disposing heads and guts.

Scaling: Bass, crappie and bream have scales. Remove the scales if the intention is to fry them whole. Scaling a fish is a simple procedure that can be carried out using a few simple steps:

— Lay the fish on its side on a flat surface.

— Use one hand to grip the head and the other to hold the scaling device.

— Hold the fish steady. Using short, firm strokes, rake against the scales beginning at the tail and work towards the head. Be sure to remove all scales on collar, belly, back and around the fins.

Gutting: Some people like to leave the head on, but I won't eat anything with eyes looking at me; I always remove the head first. Lay the fish on its side or belly and hold it steady while using a sharp knife to cut downward through the backbone and flesh until the head and gills are removed.

— Lay the fish on its side and insert the knife blade between the body cavity and entrails.

— Cut straight down the center of the belly all the way to the anal vent.

— Remove knife, open the body cavity and remove the entrails. Depending the fish, it may be necessary to do some trimming with the knife to ensure all the guts are removed.

— Rinse thoroughly.

Filleting: Filleting is highly preferred for fish larger than say, 12 inches. It requires no scaling and allows for deboning and dicing thick pieces of meat into thinner pieces that will cook much easier than thick ones.

Learning to fillet takes some practice to master, but once you get the hang of it you'll be able to turn a 1 1/2-pound crappie into a pair of pearly slabs in a matter of seconds.

For scaled fish like bass, crappie and bream….

— Begin by laying the fish on its side and cut downward behind the gill plate until the knife blade reaches the backbone. Do not cut through the backbone.

— Turn the knife sideways and begin cutting towards the tail, following the rib cage, dorsal fin and back bone the full width of the fish. Stop cutting just before you reach the tail, leaving the skin intact.

— Flip the cut so the meat is facing upward the skin downward.

— Beginning at the tail, cut at a slight angle though the meat until you reach the skin. Turn the knife blade sideways and follow the skin to the opposite end to fully separate the meat.

— Flip the fish and over and repeat on the opposite side.

— Filleting a large catfish requires significantly more cuts. It is also a good idea to "bleed" the fish out before the actual cleaning process begins. This is accomplished by hanging the fish tail down on a hook or rope and removing the tail, just behind the anal fin.

Cleaning Up the Fillets: Once the fillets are removed, be sure to trim away any red strips of meat and excess fat. Otherwise, it will ruin the flavor. Once this is done, toss the meat on ice and move on to the next fish. Rinse all the fillets thoroughly with clean water before freezing.

Bagging for the freezer: Fish can be frozen in several different types of containers, but quart and gallon-size freezer bags are especially handy.

— Divide the meat in portions to suit your normal dinner menu.

— Fill the bag 1/2 to 3/4 full of fish and add enough water to fully cover all the meat.

— Drain any air pockets and seal the bag tightly before placing the freezer. Freezing fish in water will help prevent freezer burn and keep fish tasting fresh for extended periods.

When it comes to eating fish, the fresher the better.

Matt Williams is a free lance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail,