Cleaning And Preparing Salt Water Fish
An easy guide to cleaning, filleting, and preparing salt-water fishes, including mahi-mahi, tuna, and mackerel.
If you do any salt-water fishing, you know the best part of the sport by far is being on the ocean, trolling for monstrous fish, and waiting to hear the distinctive sound of line being stripped from a reel. Your heart jumps when a fish hits, and then you set the hook and settle in for some arm conditioning as you battle to get this fish to the boat. It’s an incredible feeling to see a billfish tail walk across the water, or see the vibrant colors of an exhausted yellow fin tuna under water as it finally throws in the towel and surfaces at the transom of the boat. This is the primary reason we fish the deep waters of the ocean, hoping to get a glimpse of the incredible fish that roam the Gulf Stream. But the next best thing to actually landing a fifty-pound dolphin or a dozen king mackerel is knowing that you will have really fresh fish for dinner.
Growing up on the coast of North Carolina, I have caught, cleaned, and eaten literally hundreds of fish from our waters. Inshore Spanish mackerel, tuna, dolphin, king mackerel, and wahoo have been the most abundant fishes in my area, and happen to be the tastiest in my opinion, as well. If you are a tourist that has caught fish on a charter boat or you are a weekend saltwater angler, here are some tips for successfully cleaning ocean fishes that I have learned by trial and error. It is a shame to catch beautiful fish and then ruin or leave much of the meat on the bone due to ineffective cleaning, and this is the best way I have found to avoid doing just that. There are thousands of varieties of fish in the sea, and this guide is for those fish in the mackerel or tuna families that have thick skin rather than scales.
The first step is getting the skin off of the fish, and I have seen many fish ruined during this process because of dull fillet knives or poor cutting. I will use a dolphin fish or mahi-mahi in this explanation because they are representative of most other species when it comes to cleaning. Make sure your fillet knife is extremely sharp, as it should make even cuts and enable you to get all of the meat off of the fish. Make the first cut along the side of the fish just behind the pectoral fin (the front of the fish), and cut from top to bottom about a half inch deep. Cut from the base of the dorsal fin to the bottom of the fish. Next, cut lengthwise along the bottom of the fish until the meat and the tail come together, and make this cut about a half inch deep as well. Make the same lengthwise cut along the top of the fish just below the dorsal fin at a half-inch in depth, and you should have basically cut an outline around the meat of the fish on one side at this point. You then want to use your hands or a good pair of pliers to peel the skin off the fillet. Pliers work really well, especially if the fish is large and has thick skin. Start at the top corner of the first incision you made from top to bottom behind the pectoral fin, and pull the skin towards the back of the fish with the pliers while holding the head of the fish. The skin should peel back fairly easily, but you might need a knife to cut away any difficult spots. Once you reach the tail end of the fish, all of the skin should have come off the fillet that you outlined, and you can begin to cut out the actual fillet. Go back to the original incisions and cut them deeper until you hit bone or know that you have gone at least an inch into the fish. Insert the knife in the front perpendicular incision; turn the fillet knife sideways, and cut backwards from the front incision to the rear incision, all the way through the meat of the fish. You already made the outline, and now you are just removing the actual fillet. If your knife is sharp enough and you have cut the fillet lengthwise, you should be able to pull out an almost perfect piece of meat. Remove any pieces of organs, bones, or cartilage that may be attached, and rinse the fillet thoroughly under running water. Now turn the fish over and repeat the above steps to get the fillet from the other side of the fish, and you’re done! The whole process takes about three to five minutes.
The most important steps in getting perfect fillets are using a sharp knife and not cutting the first outline incisions too deep. If you cut them too deep, the meat will start to peel back with the skin when you are skinning the fish, and ruin the fillets. Many people choose to steak fish by cutting straight through the whole fish bone and all, for circular fish steaks. But I prefer fillets because they are easier to cook and don’t have a thick bone in the middle.
An easy and really delicious way to cook your fish is as follows: Place a whole fillet on a long piece of aluminum foil and top the fish with a tablespoon of butter, salt and pepper, a generous dousing of lemon juice, and fresh sliced peppers and onions. Wrap the whole concoction tightly in aluminum foil and cook on a grill at medium heat for about twenty minutes or until the fish has turned white and is still juicy. Cooking times will vary depending on how thick your fillets are, but make sure you don’t overcook the fish because it will dry out. Allow the foil to cool, unwrap, and enjoy!
There is nothing like fresh caught fish prepared at home, and if you catch one and follow these simple instructions, I’m sure you will agree. Finding and catching the fish is the hard part. Cleaning and eating your fish is quite a reward, as anyone who has ever fought a fifty-pound tuna and won will surely attest.