How To Skin Catfish Like A Pro

Catfish are arguably one of the most underrated fish that swim because of their “questionable” lifestyles. The skin on a catfish is like processed leather. This is to to protect the catfish from injuries as well as allow it to swim easier. When it comes time to put them on the dinner table, that skin often gets in the way. There are a few ways to skin catfish when you fillet them. Things like pliers and fillet knives are common to help remove the skin when the fish is cleaned. How to skin catfish it’s certainly a skill you want to be familiar with.

The skin on a catfish is slimy and often dirty. You don’t want it anywhere near what you eat. Catfish can be one of the more difficult fish to get skinned and cleaned properly. There is a certain method that we like to use to make sure you get every bit of meat off of the filet and the carcass. There are quite a few ways to do it and neither are right or wrong. In this post, we are going to go over what the best way to skin a catfish is as well as provide oversight on how to do it.

But First, Understand The Catfish Skin

Yellow Bullhead and Brown Bullhead catfish distinction of skin sketch on a white background.

One of the things you need to know about the skin on the catfish is that it is covered in slime. Catfish taste with their skin so it is naturally different in taste and texture than other freshwater fish species. This means that the skin may be unpleasantly nasty to many people. Another thing about the skin is that it is loaded with contaminants most of the time. This can be dangerous to your health.

Catfish skin has a high degree of mercury content that upon consumption, can cause gas, bloating, intestinal problems, food poisonings, and even birth defects in unborn babies. High levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCB) and dioxins are particularly concentrated around the barbels, the skin, and the reproductive organs such as ovaries. They are extremely harmful to the health of young children. More info.

It is for this reason that you should avoid consuming it whenever possible especially if you are a nursing mother. The skin on catfish absorbs whatever is present in the water around them. Because of this, the skin on these fish may harbor bacteria, parasites, toxic chemicals from local water runoff, and many other potential pathogens. This is in wild caught catfish. Farm raised fish are much safer to eat and most of the time do not possess anything hazardous to humans. Always make an effort to remove and discard the skin whenever possible. Only consume it when you are positive that its safe.

Tools Needed

  • Fillet Knife
  • Knife Sharpener
  • Skinning Pliers
  • Cutting Board
  • Cut Resistant Glove

Prepare The Fish

The key to getting the perfect cut of meat is the right preparation. You always want to clean and fillet fish as soon as possible when they come out of the water. You have a ton of options. Its possible to keep the fish in a livewell until you are ready to go home, you can put it on a stringer and leave it in the water, or you can put in on ice right when it comes out of the water. Fresher is always better.

It will be easier to skin and fillet but it will taste fresher also which is what you want. After you have caught your catfish, put it on ice to bring down its internal body temperature. This will also cause it to be humanely dispatched. The very first thing to do is to obtain yourself a catfish. There are a whole lot of ways to catch catfish and a channel catfish is a particular favorite for the table.

You can generally catch them on the bottom. You can catch them with cut up pieces of baitfish or even a basic chicken liver. Make sure that the water they live in is not heavily polluted. If you do not want to catch catfish yourself, you can buy catfish from a local farm or even from a supermarket if they are available.

Humanely Dispatch Your Catch

I like to use ice to kill the fish because it is humane, easy, and it does not require you to deal the “death blow” if you are sensitive. There are a few other options to dispatch your catch if you do not want to put them on ice immediately. The first method is to pierce the brain with a big nail or a knife. This cuts off all electrical circuits in the brain and it is a very humane method of euthanizing the fish.

I recommend this method over hitting it in the head with a bat or another blunt object. The next is striking the fish with a baseball bat or similar club like a big stick. This usually works but sometimes it merely stuns the fish and makes the meat tense up. The third way is basic suffocation. Take the fish out of the water and let it expire. I don’t really like this way because it is unnecessarily inhumane.

How To Skin Catfish Using A Fillet Knife

Channel catfish template for skinning.

Start by using your fillet knife and cutting a slit around both sides of the head. Make sure that the cuts meet on the belly. Make the cut around 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch deep depending on the size of the fish. All you want to do is separate the skin. That’s it. No more. Try your hardest not to puncture anything else. Use your fillet knife to slice around the bottom to connect the dots on the two cuts.

It’s around this time that you may need to sharpen your knife because it might get dull. This region is hard on your knife. Unless you’re using a very high carbon steel, use your knife sharpener to put a new edge back on your fillet knife before continuing onto the next step. Put on your cut resistant glove and hold the fish’s head in your non-dominant hand. You will eventually hit the dorsal fin.

Cut around it. You have an optional step of ripping this out with a pair of pliers before you start this process. Make vertical cuts near the tail and make sure that intersect with the ones cut before. Use a good pair of skinning pliers and grab the skin next to the gills of the fish. Peel the catfish skin away from the meat. If you need more leverage you can twist the pliers. It will rip off. Just peel the rest of the skin off by grabbing it again with a pliers. Turn the fish over and repeat the process on the other side.

Alternatively, you can fillet the fish skin-on as normal and use a tool like the Skinzit Fish Skinner.

How To Gut Catfish After Skinning

Open the fish up, slide your hand inside against the body, and remove all of the insides with your hand. Now the fish should be completely skinned and gutted. Discard every organ and wash your hands thoroughly.

Once that is done take those ahead of the catfish and twisted until it snaps the neck. Pull it away from the carcass. You can also use a big knife to chop right through if it suits you better. Next you will want to remove all of the fins and the tail. Many tools will help you with this. I recommend a normal pair of scissors or garden shears. Cut near the base of the thin and rip it out with the pliers. All of the fins should come off connected to pin bones. Next, use cold water to wash away the blood and other debris from the inside of the body.

Filleting The Fish After It Has Been Prepared

Cut along the spine of the fish starting from the head and working your way down towards the tail. Run the tip of your knife along the the backbone of the catfish. Let the edge of your knife worked that meat off of the bones. Don’t use any sawing action. Let the knife do the work. Open up the filet as the knife slices it off. Stop right near the tail. Slice open the cavity in down the center of the belly, open up the stomach cavity, and try not to puncture any of the organs. Once your fillet knife gets to the end of the ribs, poke it through and finish off the filet.

Clean Up With Clean Water

I cannot overemphasize how important it is to make sure that you maintain sanitary conditions when working with raw catfish. Getting blood on your hands as one thing but getting potentially toxic catfish blood in your food is another. This is not just the time to gently run the meet under the water although you should do that too. Completely soak the catfish until is is 100% clean. Don’t use warm or hot water either. It may cook the meat and you may get burned in the process.

Person washing hands in clean sink under running water.

Washing it off with cold water keeps the meat nice and tender as well as flavorful. What’s the fish is nice and blood free, ensure that the same thing happens to your hands as well as all of your other equipment that has made contact. Take the time to wash your fillet knife, your cutting board, and anything else that has been cross-contaminated. Although it is standard when you are handling food, it is even more important when the fishing question can be harmful to your health.

Store The Catfish in a Suitable Container

The main thing to do after this is to make sure that you didn’t just waste your time cleaning the fish for no reason. Instead you want to make sure that you stored in a proper container. A bowl in the fridge will work well for dishes that are to be made sooner than 3 days for now. It is also advisable to use a Tupperware container or some other plastic food storage container that has a snapping lid.

This will keep the air away from the meat and prevent it from drying out. If you want something a little longer, I recommend putting the fillets in a freezer bag and throwing them in the freezer and they should keep good indefinitely. Last, you should find a way to cook your fillets. Catfish fillets make an excellent fish sandwich, fish tacos, for deep fried nuggets. They are traditionally treated with very aggressive cooking styles such as deep frying and blackening but they will be equally tasty in a stir fry or simply baked in the oven with a lemon pepper marinade.

Skinned catfish fillet in a bowl of potato soup.

Cook And Enjoy Your Catfish Fillets!

You can now enjoy that tasted catfish made in all of your favorite recipes. They lend themselves well to strong flavors and zesty spices such as Mexican and Thai food. Now you know how to skin a catfish the right way and you also know how to get the most meat out of your fish. If you happen to have a good catfish recipe for us to try, reply and leave us a comment below to tell us what it is. Do you have a favorite recipe for fresh catfish fillets?

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