Catfish can be a tricky subject to butcher. There’s the old-fashioned method involving a penny nail and pliers, where the fish is nailed to a tree and its skin pulled off like a glove—except that it never works that way. It rips off in tiny, uneven pieces, leaving you with a carcass that looks like its been picked over by a murder of crows. I’ve even heard of anglers using compressed air to loosen the areolar tissue that binds the skin and the underlying muscle, but that sounds cumbersome and unnecessary to me. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but there’s only one good way. Just fillet the damn things.
- You’ll need a sharp fillet knife with at least 6 inches of flexible blade. Flip the catfish on its side and position it so the barbs on the pectoral fins are hanging off the edge of the cutting surface and the catfish is lying flush (the pectoral and dorsal barbs are coated with a nasty toxin that stings like hell when it penetrates skin—avoid them). Start with a small incision where the skull meets the flesh. Cut straight down till you feel bone.
- Turn the blade parallel to the spine and slice towards the tail. Cut slowly along the back, feeling the bones the entire way. Notice I made a semi-circular cut around the dorsal spine. There is a bony knob here that is exclusive to catfish and it can be a pain to cut around. A little practice makes perfect.
- Continue the cut along the back, feeling the rows of bones as you go. The tip of your blade should be scratching the top of the rib cage. Lift up the freshly cut flesh as you go.
- Once the cut along the back has passed the dorsal fin by a couple of inches, you will be clear of the rib cage. Slowly and carefully—while still maintaining contact with the rows of bones along the spine—punch the blade straight through to the bottom of the fish. Ideally you will just miss the rib cage.
- Continue the cut along the spine and rows of bones until you reach the tail fin. Leave the now-hanging fillet attached. It will help support the fish while you cut the remaining side.
- Repeat steps 1-5 for the other side. When both sides are filleted you’ll have something that looks like this.
- Place the catfish on its stomach, its tail facing you. Cut along both sides of the rib cage until the fillets are freed from the fish. When you’ve finished this step, it should look like the picture in the upper left-hand corner. Discard the carcass.
- Now for the tricky part. Cut down at a slight angle at the tip of the tail until you feel resistance. DO NOT cut all the way through the skin on the other side. Wiggle your blade into position between the skin and the bottom of the flesh.
- Flexing your blade slightly, cut away from yourself along the imaginary line that separates the skin and the flesh.
- Half way down the fillet it may be necessary to grab the skin to keep it stationary while you make your cut. Catfish skin is REALLY tough.
When you’re done you’ll have something that looks like this, Actually,you’ll have two things that look like this.
And just a reminder, sharp knives cut careless fingers, as do catfish barbs, gill plates and fish spines. In fact, I’ve received more cuts from latter two than I have from a fillet knife. Right after I shot this post, a gill plate made the one below.