Category: catfish info

How to Fillet a Catfish


Even though catfish don’t have scales, they are still often considered to be a tough fish to fillet, mostly because of their tough skin. There are a number of different techniques out there for dealing with catfish. But with a good, sharp knife, or electric knife, filleting a catfish may be easier than other fish.

Some people try to remove the skin first, but this usually requires the use of pliers and a good grip to pull the skin off after making a thin incision around the fins and fillet. A sturdy glove may come in handy with this method. A more preferred method is to cut off the fillet, with skin, followed by cutting the fillet from the skin. This is an easier method that can also leave less skin and connective tissue on the fillet.

There is some disagreement on whether a knife or an electric knife is better for the job. This may depend on how many fish or how often you fillet a fish. Both require some training to get it right, but usually those with less fish to fillet tend to use an electric knife. If the number of fish gets large, a good knife may be less costly than a number of electric knives and blades. One knife that looks very sturdy is the Bubba Blade knife. A number of people swear by the Mister Twister electric fillet knife, or at least their blades. The 110 V plug-in version is needed for the power. The American Angler electric fillet knife also gets high praise.

Another big difference in approaches is whether to cut through the rib cage or around it. For small catfish, it is fairly easy to cut through the ribs, but on larger sizes (5-6 lbs and up) you will need a sharp, sturdy knife to cut the ribs.

On a small fish – make a cut on the side, behind the head from the top of the fish (dorsal side) near the front of the dorsal fin down behind the pectoral fins to in front of the pelvic fin. Cut through the rib cage to the spinal cord, then turn knife to go parallel to spine and cut to the tail. Stop the cut before cutting through the skin at the tail, and then flip the fillet towards the tail so that the fillet is showing. While holding onto the fish, beginning from where the fillet is attached at the tail, cut the fillet from the skin by pushing the knife between the fillet and skin while pulling the fish to keep the skin tight. It helps to begin the cut with the point of the knife or flex the electric knife blade to get a good cut. If you didn’t stop the initial cut of the fillet at the tail, you will need to grab the skin at the tail with pliers and cut the fillet from the skin, from tail to head. Finally, cut out the ribs from fillet.

On a larger fish (> 5-6 lbs) – make a partial cut on side, behind the head, up to the spine, then cut along the spine until you get past the ribs, then plunge the knife through the fish (from dorsal to ventral side) and cut along the spine to the tail. Then come back and trim around the ribs back to the initial cut on the side. The fillet still needs to be skinned and if you didn’t cut the fillet off at the tail, flip the fillet over at the tail and cut the fillet from skin from where it attached at the tail. If you cut the fillet off at the tail, grab the skin at the tail with pliers and cut from tail to head. There is some dark red meat on the lateral line of the fillet that you may prefer to remove. This can be cut with a V-cut to remove, but it will split you fillet in half. The top and bottom edge may need trimming as well. A slightly different version for larger fish is to start the cut behind the rib cage at an angle. Cut to spine and then back to tail. This loses some of the shoulder portion of the fillet. For this size fish, the belly flap can also be trimmed off. This is under the section of skin on the belly near the head. Just finish cutting from the initial side cuts from both sides, towards the jaw. Cut or pull any small tendrils attached, and cut in front of the pelvic fin to separate the belly flap. There is skin on one side and membrane on the other that needs to be removed. This is sliced off just like removing the skin from the fillet by grabbing the skin/membrane, with meat on top, and cut while pulling the skin.

Watch these three videos. They are very good at describing these methods of filleting catfish.

What is that yellow streak down the back of my catfish?

yellow catfish fillet

Well, it’s probably not because catfish are cowards. But many catfishers have certainly noticed the yellow, to dark yellow, to sometimes brown streak on the fillets of catfish. The yellow is usually seen on top edge of the fillet (near where the dorsal fin had been) and sometimes on the lower edge (near where the pelvic fin had been). It’s not, as some have guessed, iodine, or some other terrible toxin. But it’s found as a streak on the edge of the fillet because that is the fatty part of the fillet. The fat itself is not yellow, but yellow-pigmented compounds that are fat soluble will accumulate in the fat and cause it to become yellow. These yellow compounds are actually antioxidant chemicals that are good for you. They’re called xanthophylls, but are better known as carotenoids. And as you may have known, they are in many vegetables and of course carotene in carrots is one of the best known of these. While carotene is orange, the xanthophylls, such as lutein and zeaxathin found in catfish are yellow. And then there are other xanthophylls that are red, such as astaxanthin, found in shrimp, lobster, and salmon.

Fish don’t naturally have these pigments, but must get them from the environment, from what they eat. Now as you probably know, catfish are omnivores, which means they are opportunistic eaters and will eat just about anything. This means aquatic plants, other fish, vegetation, algae, fish eggs, crayfish, snails, aquatic bugs, minnows, decaying vegetation, dead fish, dead bugs, leeches, worms, but their main diet is insects, small fish, and vegetation. In the farm-raised catfish that you buy at the grocery store (if you had some bad luck catching your own), the yellow color would come from natural sources like algae, snails, vegetation, and shad (stocked with the catfish), plus from the corn in their feed. The catfish in stocked ponds and lakes should be similar, but river catfish probably would have a little more variability.

And if you just want the yellow color gone, I’ve heard you can soak the fillet in salted ice water overnight and the fillet will become pristine white. I’ll be trying this, and other methods, soon. I’ll give you a heads up on the results. So, even though the yellow streak in catfish can be considered a good thing – “sun kissed”, that same fat that the yellow dissolves in is also a great reservoir for the off-flavor, dirt-smelling compounds that are often associated with catfish. Even though there’s not really a link between the yellow color and the off-flavor (probably because the two maximize at different times of the year) some people remove the fat and say it helps the taste of the fillet.