Cleaning a Sunfish

Successfully Caught Fish!

Growing up, one of my favorite weekend activities was a family fish fry. We would typically head out to a pond or lake to catch some fish, Dad would clean them, and then we would fry up the results.

More often than not, we would catch a mess of Bluegill, one of a number of common freshwater Sunfish.

Nothing beats a mess of fried, boneless, Bluegill filets. Totally sublime chunks of mild fish covered in crispy shell of corn meal, flower, black pepper, salt, and beer based batter. Alternatively, you can take the whole fish or a whole filet, dredge it in a mix of corn meal, salt, and pepper, then fry it up in some butter in a cast iron pan. Either way, can’t lose (Thanks to my big sis Ann for reminding me of the “other best way” to eat Bluegill!)

On our most recent trip to Missouri, Roger learned to bait a hook, cast a line, and reel in a fish. Proof in the photo at left.

Once caught, the fish have to be cleaned. I have sat down with my Dad and cleaned fish, following his lead. But I always forget how in the interim months between fishing adventures.

To make sure that doesn’t happen again, I photo-documented the process of cleaning a Bluegill/l/l / Sunfish / Crappie. The goal was to produce a bunch of filets. The process could be modified slightly if an on-the-bone result is desired.

If the realities of putting food on the table don’t bother you, click through to see a pictorial guide to cleaning a fish with descriptions of each step….

There are a variety of methods for cleaning these small, freshwater fish. I have documented two basic methods with the key difference being whether you leave the head/guts on or off during cleaning. It really doesn’t make much a of a difference. Clearly, if serving whole fish on the bone is the desired result, then removing the head/guts is likely going to be the preferred method.

Thanks to my father — Roger Bumgarner — for taking the time to let me photo-document this process. Once photographed, I did take over and clean the rest of the fish!

Head On Method

(1) Slice just behind fins and cartilage of head

(1) Start by slicing the fish just behind the front fin and cartilage that is found behind the gills. Make the slice from the belly up to the top of the fish.

(2) All the way around to other side...

(2) Continue slicing over the top of the fish and around the other side all the way to the belly. This cut doesn’t have to be that deep, but should be through the flesh itself.

(3) Carefully slice along backbone

(3) Take the knife point and slice the skin all the way down the backbone. This cut should be as close to the backbone as possible right down the top of the fish.

(4) All the way to tail...

(4) Continue this cut all the way down to the tail. Take care to not poke the knife into the filet — into the meat of the side of the fish — too deeply. You are just trying to make a gap between backbone and filet through which proper filet removal can take place.

(5) Remove filet from fish

(5) Slice the meat away from the backbone of the fish. Keep the knife as close to the bones of the back as possible. Angle it into the bones just slightly. You want to remove all of the flesh from the fish’s skeleton. It seems to work best by starting at the head and working backwards. Don’t worry about the meat on the rib cage just yet.

(6) Slicing against backbone all the way to the tail.jpg

(6) Keep slicing the meat away from the top half of the fish until you get to the end of the rib cage. Now, slide the knife along the backbone all the way through to the bottom of the fish. Pressing down with the knife, you can now slice carefully all the way through to the tail of the fish while losing very little meat.

(7) Including over the ribs

(7) With the filet separated from all but the rib cage, you can lift up the filet and carefully slice the meat away from the rib cage itself. Slice all the way down the rib cage to the bottom of the fish.

There may be a fin or cartilage stuck to the filet. Remove it before moving on to skinning.

(8) Slice filet off skin

(8) To skin the filet, start by peeling back a little bit of skin from the filet at the thick end of the filet (this will be the piece by the top of the front part of the filet). Then, using a pair of skinning plier or your fingers, hold down the skin and slide a knife against the skin and under the filet. Using a gentle sawing motion, slice the filet from the skin.

If the knife is angled into the skin a bit, very little meat will be left on the skin, if any at all.

(9) All the way to the tail

(9) Continue slicing the filet off the skin all the way through the tail. End result; one beautiful small fish filet.

(10) Repeat for other side

(10) Turn the fish over and repeat from step (3) to remove the filet from the other side of the fish.

Head and Guts Removed Method

(a) Slice deeply all the way around head just behind fins

(a) Using the same cut as in (1) and (2) above, slice all the way around the head of the fish. This cut should be deep. All the way to the bone.

(b) Rip head off and remove guts from abdominal cavity

(b) Rip the head off and use a finger to clean out the abdominal cavity. That yellow-orange stuff in the photo is eggs. A lot of people find it to be quite tasty. You can also save the livers for catfish bait.

Before anyone gets upset over harvesting fertile fish, keep in mind that Bluegill reproduce very very quickly. If not fished and fished often, the population will rapidly get out of hand. The damned things are an annoyance when trying to fish for bass or catfish in that they will strip the hook in short order. A lot of the time, it is quite easy to catch bluegill with no bait on the hook!

(c) Collect guts for garden's benefit

Clean the guts out thoroughly. If you want to serve the fish whole, now is a good time to slice off the fins and alimentary canal. You can use the knife to either scrape the scales off or use the skinning pliers to rip the skin off gently.

(d) Filet as usual

Otherwise, grab the fish and go back to step (3) above and filet as per the head on method.

A modified version of this same method works for most freshwater fish, including bass and trout. It is really a matter of figuring out where the cartilage and bones are and working around them.

The one exception is catfish. They don’t have scales, but a continuous very slipper skin.

The easiest way to deal with a catfish is to nail it belly side down to a fence or phone pole, slice around its neck and then use the skinning pliers to literally peel the entire skin off like a sock. Once skinned, the fish can be taken down and prepared as desired (bone-in, small chunks, big filets, etc…).

I would have photo-documented that process but the damned catfish proved to be smarter than I was this trip. Not so last trip….

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15 Responses to “Cleaning a Sunfish”

  1. annbb says:

    Now you need to include the recipe (and rest of the menu) for a typical Mizzourah Fish Fry.
    Though I love munching on fillets, my favorite is cleaned and skinned, (leaving the skin on is delicious too), but left whole – YUM!!

  2. Joe Heck says:

    This is great! I’d love to see your catfish writeup. My method was typically using a pair of dulled wireclippers for the skinning followed by a head & gut removal. Toss the lot into buttermilk and cornmeal and get yourself a large cast-iron skillet with hot oil… yeah, good stuff.

  3. Chuck Toporek says:

    Great tutorial and shots, Bill. Reminds me of when I’d go fishing as a kid in Michigan to catch perch, bluegill, and rock bass, followed by the obligatory cleaning and frying of said fishies for dins that night.

    +1 on including the recipes for your batters, too.

  4. Jeremy Lehman says:

    hahaha… thanks ever so much. I just went out late last night and got my fishing license. Ever since my dad unfortunately became addicted to coccaine he stopped taking me fishing. I am 16 and this was the first year I needed a license. I plan on eating lots of bluegill once I get out and start fishing. Thanks alot for the guide. I never could watch my dad do it when I was younger, now I plan to do it myself. THANKS ALOT!!!


  5. bbum’s weblog-o-mat » Blog Archive » Blue-gill (common pond fish) as water quality monitors says:

    […] Beyond that, I find it all amusing because blue-gill are a lot of fun to catch, easy to clean and just so incredibly damned tasty. […]

  6. Robert says:

    Glad I found your site. I haven’t been fishing since 1981. I needed a little help remembering how it was gone about to clean those puppies. Thanks.

  7. Jim says:

    Great photos, nothing better than a mess of sunnies. Go ahead and scale them first if you are not going to filet them. I prefer them with the head and guts removed as per your article but scale them first. Put some flour , maybe a little corn meal, salt and pepper to taste, in a bag (ziplock) drop in a fish and shake. Now you’re ready to fry in a pan with olive oil and some butter for about 4 min. per side on Medium heat to form a nice crust and you’ve got a great feast.

  8. DNR says:

    Great information! My dad used to always clean the fish my family caught, but since he is no longer with us I wil be doing it. Thanks for the great pics and article!

  9. Andrew White says:

    This was a great article. Good information with informative pictures.

  10. Lakefisher says:

    Great article!
    Those sunfish looks alot like the Perch we have here in Denmark.

  11. max smith says:

    hi i am 14 and i was wondering if you could make the cleaning of the fish into a video it would help me much more the pictures are great and all but my mind cant comprehend it very well so if you do send me a email with the video thank you. my email address is giant648 at yahoo dot com and if anyone else has a video of cleaning a sunfish then that would help a whole bunch to i am needing this information because i am practicing wilderness survival by myself so it could help me very much thank you.

  12. Fishing Reels For Sale says:

    Great tutorial. well thought out and great details. it has been a very long time since I had the time to fish much less clean a fish. i can remember my dad showing me how to do it and then leaving me with a bucket of fish to clean. I wish I had had this tutorial to help. excellent work. Thank you.


  13. Florida Fishing says:

    great pictures and great tutorial on how to clean a sunfish. This method is almost the same for every kind of fish that is out there including saltwater and freshwater. I will point my readers to this page for information on how to clean a fish.

  14. David Harmon says:

    Excellent demo!

    I like that “chainmail” glove too, it must be pretty helpful when working with sharp knives and slippery fish. How would I ask for such gloves in an appropriate store?

  15. Jason says:

    Bill, that’s a great tutorial! I found this completely by accident but read the whole thing from beginning to end. I can’t think of a better way to end a night out camping than with fresh-caught fish and your tutorial will be helpful to anybody who hasn’t enjoyed the pleasure.

    Thanks for the detailed guide and pictures. Probably a host of outdoor noobs who are doing it right thanks to you.


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