How to Clean Panfish

By: Claire Bloom
Panfish lay on ice of lake in Michigan. Allen

Let's put it right out on the table: Cleaning­ panfish is messy business. But don't let that put you off. There are few meals more sublime than freshly caught panfish -- assuming that fish is small enough to fit in a pan. Perch, crappies, bluegills and sunfish are among the most common and popular panfish.

The fishing community falls into two camps: those who scale panfish and those who don't. Some folks scale the fish, debone them and then prepare them with the skin ­on. Others simply fillet the fish, negating the need for removing scales. Still others prefer to leave the bones in; they simply scale and gut the fish and cook them. In the end, it comes down to personal preference.


­We'll cover all the steps -- removing scales, gutting, deboning and filleting -- so that you can choose the method that works for you.

Something to know before getting started: Fish are delicate, so once they're caught, take care when handling them. Roughness will lead to soft flesh (rather than firm), a strong flavor and that fishy smell everyone wrinkles their nose at.


Removing Scales from Panfish

Scales are the thin, rigid, overla­ppin­g plates that protect the skin of a fish. Before scaling, cover the cutting board with several layers of newspaper. This will help with cleanup. And since it takes several panfish to make a meal, you'll need lots of newspaper because you'll need a fresh sheet for each fish.

Before starting, wash the fish in cool water -- wet scales are easier to remove.


  1. Lay the fish on its side on the paper.
  2. Use scissors to cut off the fins so you won't be cut while you work.
  3. Firmly hold the fish at the tail or head; if the fish is slippery, use a cloth to help keep your grip.
  4. Starting at the tail, hold a dull knife or spoon at a slight angle and push against the skin toward the head, scraping the scales as you go.
  5. Make sure to work the edges of the fish and the head.
  6. Turn the fish over and repeat.­

Once you have a fish scaled, set it aside in a shallow pan. Wrap the scales in newspaper and discard. Repeat the procedure for each fish.

Have a strong stomach? Good, because it's time to gut them.



Gutting Panfish

­Once the fish are scaled, it's time to gut them. It's a relatively si­mple procedure because most of the entrails come out together.

  1. Put several layers of newspaper on a cutting board, and place the fish on its side on the paper.
  2. Insert the tip of the fillet knife into the belly near the anal gland. Move the knife along the belly all the way to the head. Be sure not to insert the blade too deep-you want to avoid slicing the intestines.
  3. Spread the body apart and remove the entrails.
  4. Find the anus and cut it out with a V-shaped or notched incision.
  5. You might see a kidney attached to the backbone; scoop or scrape it out with a spoon.
  6. Wrap the offal in newspaper and discard.
  7. Thoroughly rinse out the cavity and wash off the skin.

OK, the worst parts of cleaning a panfish are now complete. The next steps will get you to the endgame.


Deboning Panfish

No­w that you've removed the scales and gutted the fish, the next step is deboning. Fish bones can easily get stuck in the throat and cause choking, so most people prefer to eat boneless fish. The key piece of equipment here is the knife: Make sure it's sharp and flexible. Do not use a serrated knife because it will shred the flesh [source: Active Angler].

  1. Lay the fish on its side on a newspaper-covered cutting board.
  2. Insert a sharp knife behind the gills and cut down to the backbone.
  3. Rotate the knife so that it is flat against the backbone, parallel to the cutting board, with the sharp edge pointed toward the tail.
  4. With a sawing motion, gently cut along the backbone toward the tail, running the blade underneath the meat of the fish.
  5. Turn the fish over and repeat; the backbone can now be removed.
  6. To remove the ribs, insert the knife between the rib cage bones and the fillet and slice the meat away from the ribs.
  7. To remove the pin bones (the small bones found in the fillets), use fingers, tweezers, or needle-nose pliers.

Set the meat aside, wrap the remains in the newspaper and discard. Repeat the procedure with each fish.


To learn how to remove fillets from panfish, continue reading.


Removing Panfish Fillets

Th­e procedure for removing fillets­ from panfish is similar to deboning.­ It's a different way to achieve the same result. Scaling is not necessary if you're going to remove the skin when filleting.

  1. Cover a cutting board with newspaper and lay the fish on it side, backbone toward you.
  2. Cut the fish under the skin and just behind the gills. Run the blade from backbone to belly.
  3. Put the tip of the blade at the backbone at the beginning of the first incision. Insert about a half-inch deep. Angle the knife slightly down, and use the backbone to guide the blade down to the anal vent (where you made the V cut when gutting).
  4. Push the blade outward and through the vent. Press the blade against the backbone and spine. Work the knife along the bones to the tail.
  5. Lift the flesh and insert the tip of the knife near the head. Start to work the fillet off the bones. Cut carefully to loosen as much meat as possible. Once you've worked the fillet off the ribcage, remove it from the body by cutting along the belly.
  6. Repeat with the other side of the fish; wrap the remains and discard.
  7. Place the two fillets skin side down on a fresh piece of newspaper.
  8. With the knife in a vertical position, cut into the flesh about a quarter inch from the tail area. Cut until you reach the skin. Now turn the blade so that it is at a horizontal angle. Cut with a gentle sawing motion along the skin to the end of the fillet to separate the meat from the skin.
  9. Run your finger along the middle of the fillet to find the small bones that still need to be removed. Use the tip of the knife to cut along each side of these bones (they run about three-quarters of the way down the fillet from the head area). Lift the strip of bones and cut it off.
  10. Repeat with the other fillet; rinse well.

Voila! You now have fresh panfish fillets ready for freezing or cooking. Enjoy!


Lots More Information

­Related Articles

  • Active Angler (Accessed November 13,2008)
  • Get Lost Magazine (Accessed November 13,2008)
  • Ontario Fishing (Accessed November 13,2008)
  • Rombauer, Irma S. and Marion Rombauer Becker. Joy of Cooking. Vol. 1. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1965.
  • Take Me Fishing (Accessed November 13,2008)