Fillet Fresh Fish or Cook Skin and Bones?

Filleting fish is usually the cleaning method of choice, however, there are two side of the debate of whether to fillet or not.

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Lois Hoffman
Two young fishermen display their catch

Photo by Lois Hoffman

When it comes to fishing, there are always tall tales: the biggest catch of the day that just keeps growing and growing every time it is told, the biggest one that got away, the elusive biggest one that is still out there, and on and on. The tales are all a part — a big part — of fishing.

When the fishing trip is over and its time to clean the catch, that’s when the tales stop and the debate starts. It’s the great debate of to fillet or not to fillet. Most of today’s fishermen are of the filleting school. It’s quicker, easier, less bones to worry about when eating, it’s just better…right?

Well, you guessed it, I’m in the other camp. I still prefer my fish scaled and gutted rather than filleted. Leaving the skin intact and the bones in while cooking definitely adds more flavor to the fish. You also get more fish — filleting leaves so much flesh behind. But, this is just my take on it. There are pros and cons in both filleting and scaling and gutting.

Choosing Whether to Fillet Fresh Fish or Not

When I was a kid, no one filleted; at least not anyone I knew. Nearly every weekend, I would go bluegill fishing with my dad and Uncle Harold. Why two diehard fishermen dragged a little girl along with them, I will never know, even though I am so grateful that they did.

Maybe it was because I was such an awesome fisherman (fishergirl?). Whether they were having a good day or not catching fish at all, I always caught one right after the other. My bubble was burst a little later in life when I learned that one of them would take the fish off my hook and put the same one back on while the other one distracted me — that poor fish!

Nevertheless, most times we would have a good catch and two or three times a year, we would have a huge fish fry. After all of the fish were cleaned, which would number well over 100 after a couple days of fishing, my Mom and grandmother would spend two to three hours frying fish and then whole families would line up at makeshift tables by the barn and feast on fish and plates of bread and butter. Buckets under the table were for all the bones that were pulled out.

OK, here is where filleting gets the upper hand. Adults would always have to check over we kids’ fish before we ate them for any bones missed. Basically, when you scale and gut the fish, the backbone and rib bones are still left. After the fish are fried, you would just split the fish and peel out the backbone and the rib bones would lift out, save for the last couple that would sometimes be buried in the flesh. This is where the problem comes in with missing a bone.

For the larger fish, Mom would split them into halves and fry each half separately, thus one half would have the backbone while the other one would not. Dad would have Mom fry these halves extra crispy so that he could eat rib bones without trying to pick them out.

Here is where filleting shines. You basically sliver the flesh out, leaving bones, skin, and guts behind. There is definitely less risk of getting a bone caught in your throat this way. The sacrifice you make is more of the fish is wasted and flavor is lost.

When done right, fish skin is the most delicious part of a fish fillet. Leaving the bones intact also helps hold the fish together while cooking, especially if grilling.

Just like with most debates, there is a middle-of-the-road in this debate. Fish can be filleted to rid them of all the bones but forego the extra step of slicing the skin off. Thus, you have fillets with skin only and no bones.

Type of Panfish Determines Cleaning Method

Catch of the day
Photo by Lois Hoffman

Of course, no matter which way you like your panfish cleaned, the kind of fish you have helps decide which way your knife goes. Bluegills, crappies and perch are just fine to scale and gut. Larger fish like bass don’t lend themselves well to this method, as I learned the hard way.

Ron had caught two small-mouth bass right before he was leaving to go home once last summer. He knew that I liked fish, so he left them with me to clean and eat. Two fish didn’t seem to be such a big deal, so I grabbed my spoon for scaling and knife to gut. For starters, I couldn’t hold onto the bass to scale it. It was on the tailgate of the truck, on the ground and all over. So, I wrangled it around with a pair of pliers holding onto the tail!

Scales off, finally, I started on the gutting. Bigger fish, bigger bones dulling the knife. Let’s just say that two fish took an hour to clean with scales all over me and the truck. But, I got them done. I imagine that Ron laughed all the way home, knowing the trouble I would have. Lesson learned: Larger fish don’t lend themselves well to scaling and gutting.

Deep-Fried or Pan-Fried

So, after the great debate over how to clean panfish is settled, the next question is which is the better way to fry them: deep-fried or pan-fried? Personally, our family have always fried them in a cast-iron skillet with butter. We also use our favorite breading and only dredge once. Does the cast iron really make a difference? Oh yeah!

Lots of folks like to deep-fry the fish. The one advantage to this, especially with whole fish as opposed to fillets, is that you can make sure the breading gets into the rib cavity and it all gets fried up extra crispy. With whole fish, it also helps to score lines through the skin into the flesh so that the breading gets into the cracks ,which ensures that the whole fish will fry up crispy.

Fillets or whole fish, deep-fried or pan-fried, families will always be split on this decision. The only good news is that there is no wrong way, only your personal preferred way. Besides that, you absolutely cannot hurt a fresh-caught panfish. They are the best, hands down!

Lois Hoffman is a freelance writer and photographer covering rural living with more than 20 years of experience, contributing to Successful Farming, Country, and Farm & Ranch Living. She lives on a 37-acre hobby farm in Michigan. Read all of Lois’ GRIT posts here.