Skinning Fish Fillets For The Table

Nothing beats a good piece of baked salmon with garlic and lemon pepper or a nice deep-fried whole bluegill. This is true if you don’t count nice and fresh, boneless, skinless fillets. Some people may enjoy leaving the skin on the fish for a few reasons but many prefer to take it off. Some just don’t like the taste of the skin and some don’t enjoy going through the hassle of scaling the entire fish.

Aside from that, there are a couple of reasons why you would need to excise the skin from the rest of the fillets and they are all good reasons. Some species of fish do not cook well with the skin on and some of them impart a very fishy flavor that many people don’t like. Cooking fish is one thing but skinning it is another one entirely. Skinning fish fillets properly ensures that your family has the tastiest dish for dinner.

Understanding Basic Fish Skinning and Filleting

Equipment List

  • Fillet Knife
  • Cutting Board
  • Skin On Fish Fillet
  • Knife Sharpener

After you have gathered all of the required materials, you are ready to start filleting your fish.

Step-By-Step Instructions

The method you decide to use will have a lot to do with what species of fish you are skinning regardless if it is a panfish, a catfish, or a bass. Catfish have very tough skin so cleaning them skinless will be more difficult. Lay the fish down sideways on the cutting board. Optionally, you can pierce its head through a nail or secure the tail in some way. Start separating the skin from the fish by using gentle strokes down the backbone.

Start at the head, just behind the fin. Turn your knife at an angle and start to slice the top of the knife into the fish. Use a gentle motion and let the knife do all of the work. Don’t push. Slowly start to separate the fillet from the fish. Work your way down the backbone and slowly start separating the rest of the meat from the body. Once you have about half of the fillet separated, you will run into the ribcage.

Let the blade of the knife work its way around the ribs. Don’t cut straight through the ribs because you will not have boneless fillets later. Instead, let the blade glide to and around them. If your knife is to dull, use a knife sharpener to take the burs off of the blade. Once you pass the ribs, poke the blade of the knife and puncture it through the other side of the carcass. Finish the fillet by separating the rest of the meat from the body. You should have a nice fillet but there is one problem. It has skin on it. This is why you came right?

Now For The Fun Part

The solution to removing the skin is knowing and abusing the biology of the fish. Take the fillet and lay it down on the cutting board after disposing of the carcass. Grab the fillet near the tail end of the fish with your finger or a fork so you can slide your knife between the skin and the meat. Slowly start to slide the knife through the skin being careful not to cut through the meat. You only want to take the skin off. All of the cleaning is already done. Don’t perform any sawing actions if you can help it.

Think of it as more of a “rock back and forth” type of experience. The blade is merely slicing the connective tissue that connects the skin to the muscle. Never anything else. If you have a catfish, this will work too but its better to rip it off with a pair of pliers. Make sure that you go back and take off any meat that was left behind by the fillet knife. Your fillet knife does all of the cleaning as well as all of the skinning.

You can also leave the skin on the fish at the end of creating the fillet instead of slicing right through it near the tail. This can be used as leverage for your fillet knife to get the purchase it needs between the skin and the meat but without fear of slicing your fingers off with a fillet knife.

Alternative Methods

There are a couple of alternative ways in which you can complete this same task. One way is to gut the fish entirely before making your fillet. You remove the tail and head but slice off the belly meat with both fillets attached. This is called butterflying. Once the butterfly of meat has found its way away from the carcass on the cutting board, it is very easy to skin the fillet.

You can use a manual fillet knife, an electric fillet knife, or even a fish skinner. The main thing that you should remember is that there is no way to do it “right”. There is only what way is right for you and your current situation. Skinning the fish is actually easy but it is imperative that you start with properly cut fillets. Fish fillets that are not cut properly are a lot harder to work with and they don’t skin near as easily.

In questioning, we asked David what the most important part of the skinning process is. “You need to have a good fillet of fish to work on, otherwise you end up turning it to hamburger. Scaly, tasteless, hamburger.”


Skinning fish fillets for the table is a fairly straightforward process but the exact technique and knife you decide to use is more or less your preference. These methods generally work on most fish species that you can find in freshwater lakes, ponds, and streams but they will also work on various marine species too. The main thing to remember is that one result is what to work toward. How you go about accomplishing it before you catch and release to the grease is entirely up to you. Do you have a favorite way? Drop a comment below if you want to discuss further!


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