Fish being cut open with knife

How to Gut a Fish in the Wild

There is something wildly appealing and romantic about oceanside fires on windswept beaches. And, if like me, your picture of primal perfection is only complete with the addition of a freshly caught fish nestled in the embers, then you’ll need to have a few skills up your sleeve to turn it into reality – like knowing how to gut a fish.

Fish and fire on beach

Catching a fish is the first one – but I’m going to assume that you either know how to do this or have bypassed it altogether and intend taking a trip to the harbour to snap up the next best catch fresh off the boats.

Either way, a whole fish needs some attention before it’s scaly flesh makes its way to your plate and if you don’t know what you’re doing then getting it prepped can be a messy affair.

It is worth noting that although this process is fairly simple, it does take a bit of practice to do it well. So don’t be put off if your first attempt is more difficult than anticipated. Once you’ve had a go, you’ll feel much more confident the next time round.

So here’s a step by step guide on how to gut a fish:

Equipment needed

  • A good sharp knife
  • A blunt butter knife
  • Scissors (optional)

Set up your work station

If you’re in the wilderness then you’ll need to find a big flat rock or piece of wood to work on. Otherwise, a big chopping board is good. Cover it with newspaper and lay your fishy friend out ready for cutting.

Space – Make sure you’re away from the rest of your kit as things can get a bit messy.

Water – Keep in mind that you will need to clean the fish once you’ve gutted it so ensure that you have easy access to a source of fresh water.

Waste – Have a plan for disposing of the waste. If you are in the wilderness, especially bear country, then it’s probably best to burn the entrails along with the bones and head of the fish after dinner. You’ll need to store them in something whilst you cook and eat. Returning fish waste to the water has various environmental implications that can be specific to the area. So best to stay on the safe side and avoid this option.

Tip: don’t throw away the head until you’ve scooped out the delicious and tender flesh of the cheeks.

Once prepared, give yourself some elbow room and roll those sleeves up with your knives at the ready.

How to gut a fish step by step

De-scaling

Take your butter knife and scrape the skin of the fish with a short back and forth action, working from the tail to the head. Using a spoon or the back of your sharp knife will work well too. The scales may fly about the place a bit and the skin should feel smooth and slimy once you’re done.

Gutting a fish - descaling

Fins

Neaten up your dinner by snipping off any sharp fins. It’s easiest to use scissors, but your sharp knife will work fine too.

Taking the fins of a fish

Making the cut

Take your sharp knife and insert into the anus of the fish. This is found near the tail on the belly. From here, cut along the belly towards the head of the fish all the way to the base of the gills.

Fish being cut open with knife

Have some guts

Now it’s time to get your hands dirty! Spread the abdominal cavity open and pull out the guts with your fingers or a spoon. Use your knife to carefully cut any bits that are still attached. For bigger fish you may need to get your whole hand in there. The entrails of different fish may have varying degrees of muckiness about them, so don’t get put off if things aren’t as clean as you’d hoped.

How to gut a fish

Gill-free

It’s important that you remove the gills as they can add a bitter flavour to your meal and cause the fish to spoil more quickly.  So, open up the gill flap to detach the gills at either end of the arc that they form. You can do this with your knife, or a pair of scissors if proving tricky.

Cutting out the gills of a fish

How to clean fresh fish

Finally, rinse your empty fish in fresh cold water and lay on a clean surface ready for cooking! Place all the waste, along with the newspaper, in a container ready to be burnt on the fire later.

Gutting s fish - empty

Tips on how to gut a fish

If you don’t like getting your hands dirty then wear a pair of rubber gloves. They will need a thorough clean along with the rest of your equipment.

If you’re new to the world of fish gutting then try to get hold of a round fish for your first bit of butchery. These include salmon, mackerel, bream, cod and trout, amongst others.

Once you’ve done the gutting, it’s best to get cooking straight away to keep it as fresh as possible.

How to cook a fish on a campfire

Cooking fish on a stick

The simplest and probably the most ancient way to cook your gutted fish is skewered on a stick over the hot coals of a mature fire. It requires no equipment so is ideal for lightweight camping. If you set up a stand with a forked stick then you can leave it suspended over the heat for 10-15 minutes (turning halfway through) whilst you get the rest of your feast prepared.

Wrapping a fish in tin foil

This method allows for the cavity of the fish to be stuffed with ingredients of your choice. Add a little water to the bottom of the foil to allow steam to infuse the flavours through the fish. Place the wrapped fish either directly in the embers of a hot mature fire or on a grill over small flames.

Pan-frying a fish

If you are unable to light a fire, smaller fish can be fried over a gas stove. You will need butter or oil to prevent the fish from sticking, and frying works equally well over a campfire. A good method to speed up the cooking of the flesh without burning the skin is to make cuts into the flesh. These can also be filled with seasoning and oil to spread the flavours deep into the fish.

Fish on foil with ingredients

Campfire roasted fish recipe

This foil wrapped fish recipe is ideal for campfire cooking; simple, lightweight and deliciously succulent.

Ingredients

  • 3 or 4 cloves of garlic – peeled and finely diced
  • 3cm of fresh ginger – finely diced
  • A good bunch of coriander – chopped
  • 1 whole lemon – sliced
  • Salt and pepper to season

Method

  1. Mix up the chopped ingredients in a small bowl.
  2. Lay the fish on a piece of tin foil big enough to totally wrap around it.
  3. Stuff most of the mix into the cavity of the fish and sprinkle the rest on top.
  4. Lay the lemon slices inside the cavity.
  5. Add a couple of tablespoons of water into the foil packet and then seal the foil by scrunching the joins together.
  6. Place in the hot embers of a mature fire for around 15 – 20 mins (depending on the size of the fish) or until the flesh of the fish flakes away from the bones and skin.
  7. If the heat of the fire is uneven then make sure the fish is turned half way through.

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