RAYMOND — From where he lives on Thompson Pond near Sebago Lake, it doesn’t take Bill Chapin and fishing buddy Rich Rhoads long to catch pickerel. It takes them even less time to gut, clean and fillet it.

Chapin and Rhoads have cleaned fish at derbies around southern Maine with the Sebago Lake Anglers Association for 10 years. At Saturday’s youth derby at Range Pond State Park, Chapin, Rhoads and others from the Sebago club gut and filleted dozens of fish for free.

Cleaning fish is straightforward, Rhoads said. But if you’ve never done it, how would you know to cut around the “y-bone” in a pickerel, or wipe the blood away around the spine of a trout?

On Thomas Pond last week, Chapin and Rhoads explained step-by-step how to gut, clean and fillet a fish. Because who among us doesn’t love fish and chips?

Step one: Identify your fish

The first thing you need to do when gutting and cleaning a fish is to know what kind of fish you have. This is important because some fish have what is called a “y-bone” that must be cut out. A simple fish identification card from a tackle shop can help identify your catch.


Greg Burr, the 30-year regional fisheries biologist in Washington County, said in his corner of the state most fishermen prefer white perch and brook trout, because these fish lack a “y-bone”. Although, Burr said, there are some fishermen who enjoy Maine’s bony freshwater fish. Burr said these fishermen simply boil the pickerel or pike and throw the meat and bones in a food processor to make perfectly good fish cakes.

However, the age-old tradition in Washington County upheld by the region’s fishing guides called the “shore lunch,” where the guides catch and then gut, fillet and cook the fish right by the side of the lake, often involves white perch or smallmouth bass.

“The majority of guides do it. And white perch is a big one for them,” Burr said. “White perch are easy to fillet. You get a pretty long piece of thick meat off the back and side of a perch.”

Step two: Down the belly

Rich Rhoads of Mechanic Falls shows how he cleans a 19-inch lake trout at Thomas Pond. First he starts cutting onto the belly (above) from near the tail to the base of the head.

Rhoads demonstrated last week with a lake trout, so he didn’t need to worry about extra bones. He said every fisherman has an own way of cleaning and cutting a fish but the basic steps are the same.

Some start cutting into the belly, others start at the back beside the spine.


Rhoads started cutting in the stomach in the excrement vent near the tail. From there he pulled his knife along the belly toward the head.

It’s important to use a sharp knife and keep your fingers on the sides of the fish, away from the knife.

Rhoads made a deep cut along the center of the fish’s stomach from the vent near the tail to the head, stopping just behind the gills. He didn’t cut it all the way through the fish, only about halfway.

Then he cut across the neck, as if to cut the head off, but he only cut down about halfway again. At this point he pulled the head down, off and back toward the tail, and as he did so he pulled the intestines underneath with it.

He did this in one motion, then dropped the guts in a bucket.

Rich Rhoads of Mechanic Falls makes a cut across the neck while cleaning a 19-inch Lake Trout at Thomas Pond.

Next Rhoads flipped the fish on its back and opened it up in the middle, where a dark line of thick blood could be seen along the backbone. He used a paper towel – although he prefers water – to clean the thick blood line off as he scraped it away with his knife.


Then Rhoads put the fish on its stomach, and cut down its back from the head to the tail, cutting down the side of the spine to the ribs as he sliced off the first fillet.

After he was done, he pulled the meat away from the bone and lay it flat, ready to fillet in a pan or baking dish.

Then he cut the fillet on the other side.

Some fishermen pan fry a fish with the bones left in, but Rhoads prefers to cut the meat around it before cooking.

Step three: Freeze or fry?

Once the fillets are cut out and cleaned, the next decision is whether to prepare these for the freezer or frying pan.


To freeze the fish meat, put it in wax paper first before packaging it in a plastic bag, where it will keep in the freezer.

If Rhoads is cooking his fish fresh, he will pan fry or bake the fillets depending on the size.

“A larger fillet makes a nice fry because there’s more meat,” he said.

Rich Rhoads of Mechanic Falls prepares the fillets from a 19-inch Lake Trout at Thomas Pond.

For smaller cuts, Rhoads will put olive oil in a baking dish and set the oven to 350 to 400 degrees. Then he will add bacon, a little Italian seasoning spice and bake it for 40 minutes.

With some fish, like trout, many fishermen like Chapin enjoy crisping the skin and eating it. So be sure to put the spices and seasonings on both sides.

All told, the process took Rhoads about seven to eight minutes, although Chapin said they’ve both done it faster.

“The first year we did the Sebago togue derby in September, we ended up with 147 fish by the end of the derby,” Chapin said. “They all came in at once and we wanted to give them to Hunters for the Hungry. So we used an electric knife.”


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