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Whether you call them "smallies" or "bronze backs", a
fresh-water smallmouth bass is some of the most fun to catch: they are
fighters! But even better is the variety of ways that this fish can be
prepared. The flesh is meatier and less flaky then, say, a walleye. It
is also a bit stronger flavored and therefore will stand up to different
seasonings and cooking methods. I recently heard someone on the radio
say that small mouth bass are not a good-eating fish. Nothing could be
further from the truth, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
Many years ago, I worked as a pantry boy and sauté
cook at a very fine restaurant near Los Angeles, California. One of the
greatest tasting entrees on the menu was a dish called Pacific Red
Snapper Sauté Veronique. It was a fish very similar to smallmouth and I
decided to try the recipe. Well, I am getting way ahead of myself, but
needless to say, Bass Veronique
is a dish that I am sure anyone would love to eat; the recipe can be
found at the end of this article. It is truly one of my favorites and I
raise a toast every time I prepare a bass in that fashion.
I don’t remember when I caught my first smallmouth
bass and I certainly don’t remember the first one that I ate. I do
remember the first one that I cleaned: it was a disaster. I tried to
clean it the same way that I had learned to clean a walleye. Boy, was
that a mistake! The rib cage bones are very thick – even on the smaller
fish – and as tough as nails, literally. I quickly learned that trying
to clean bass this way only leads to a dull knife and rib cage bones
that are almost impossible to remove without wasting a whole lot of
fish. Here’s hoping that the following method - and especially the
pictures – will help you to become a master at cleaning one of the
tougher game fish to both catch…and clean!
As the largest member of the sunfish family (Centrarchidae), when trying
to fillet them, the anatomy of bass causes a very similar problem to
that encountered when cleaning a Bluegill,
although bass have their own peculiarities associated with them. Below is
a portion of the step-by-step process that I follow. As always, the key ingredient to a
successful job is the right tool - the right tool here definitely being a very
sharp knife! How important is a sharp knife? I finally
went out and bought myself one of the best:
|As always, a sharp knife is extremely
Zwilling J.A. Henckels 7-in. Twin Pro S Fillet Knife is at the top of
my list when it comes to filleting
article about knives
Fish Cleaning Bundle Special (Save 33% off the
Now available from R. Karl, step-by-step
instructions (pdf) on filleting all four of the most popular freshwater gamefish (northern
bass and bluegill)
bundled as one downloadable .zip file for only
Start as you would normally
start: place the fish belly side towards you and fish head on
your left. Note that this description is for a right-handed
person – flip the fish 180° and start with the head on your
right if you are left-handed.
Make the first
cut down and into the fish just behind the pectoral fin.
|Then, rotate the fish and,
starting at the top or backbone side of the fish - and using the
tip of the blade - cut through the skin and along the dorsal
fin/backbone... to a point approximately at the end/back of the
As with a blue gill, the cut
here will not be very deep: you need to cut only to the
point at which the ribs attach to the backbone. The rib
cage stops at a point just about where the dorsal fin ends.
|Now insert the knife blade all
the way through the fish so that it emerges on the belly side.
Keeping pressure on the flat side of the knife, continue the cut
toward the back of the fish, eventually exiting at the tail.
At this point, the fillet is attached only at the
bottom of the rib cage and belly.
|Lift the slab of the fillet and
use the tip of the knife to begin to cut away the meat from the
ribs. Work from the back of the fish and, following the
curve of the rib cage, cut down and around as you work your way
toward the front of the rib cage.
curve of the ribs is very steep and can be difficult to follow.
As a have said many times, practice makes perfect, so be
|The very last cut to make will be
the one through the belly that separates the fillet from the
|Flip the fish over on the other
side and repeat the process. You will probably find that
one side always seems to be easier than the other.
This will be normal until you have filleted many
fish... on a fairly regular basis. I find that my first
dew every year are a little rough - but it all comes back pretty
The only thing left to do know is remove the skin from
the fillet. Oddly enough, this is the one task that is sometimes made
simpler by the use of a “less-than-sharp” knife. The reason is that a
really sharp knife too often cuts right through the skin halfway through
the process and makes removal difficult. I’m not suggesting that you
change knives at this point…simply be careful and insure that the blade
of the knife doesn’t get angled down too steeply.
At this point, you are mostly finished. Due to the
anatomy of the fish, there will still be about 6-8 pieces of rib bones
remaining in the fillet that will be a half-inch or so in length. They
will extend vertically into the fillet and are located along the lateral
I have observed some anglers actually cut out a large
v-shaped portion of the fillet to achieve a “totally” boneless fillet.
It is effective, to be sure…but it does waster a lot of meat. Another,
alternative method is to remove these several pieces by hand, or grab
small pliers to do the job. Left in the fillet, they obviously must be
removed at the dinner table. In any case, it is surely a small price to
pay for on the better tasting freshwater fish available.
you are a little adventurous and want to try a dish that is to die for,
my recipe for Bass
do the trick. Although I've tried other types of fish, small
mouth bass seems to have the character to stand up to this dish.
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