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How to Prepare a Fresh Fish

Last week, we wrote about the different ways to catch a fish in an emergency situation. But once you have used your pole, trap, trotline, or spear to catch a fish, how do you get it ready to eat? As it turns out, it’s a little more complicated than picking up a filet at the grocery store – but not by much.

*Disclaimer – this article contains the steps and descriptions for gutting a fish and may be unpleasant for some readers.

Back view of a person pulling in fishing nets to a boat.

You’ve caught a fish, now what? | Photo by Fredrik Öhlander on Unsplash

Gutting the fish

Congratulations! You have conquered nature and caught a fish. Your ancestors are smiling on you and your hunting prowess. Now it is time to get that fish ready to eat!

Preparing the fish is best done with a knife, but it you don’t have one handy, skip to the cooking section of this article.

While experienced anglers will sometimes filet their fish without gutting it, it is recommended for those new to fishing. Happily, it’s not rocket science. Here are the steps:

  • Make an incision in your fish from its anus, along its stomach, to the bottom of its jaw. Be careful not to cut too deeply, as the organs will be easiest to remove if they are intact.
  • You can remove the head completely, but cooking will be easier if you leave it on. Sever the tissue connecting the digestive tract and lungs to the head.
  • Reach in near the head and begin peeling out the organs. They should come out without much difficulty.
  • Once the body cavity is empty, wash the fish out with water.

That’s it! You now have a fully gutted and cleaned a fish. From here the fish can be filleted (separating the meat from the rest of the fish) or cooked as-is.

Photo is of a person holding a fish with its gills splayed. Only the person's arm is visible, along with part of a fishing rod. There is water in the background.

Photo by luis arias on Unsplash

Cooking the fish

A new angler in a survival situation probably isn’t going to be filleting their fish, but cooking it whole. This avoids waste and minimizes the chance of cutting yourself if you are unused to handling a knife. There are three main components to cooking a fish in a survival situation: the fire, the stick, and the actual cooking process.

The fire

While it might be more satisfying to cook over an open flame, it is also the fastest way to get an unevenly cooked—or worse, burnt—fish. Instead, let your fire burn down to coals. Coals produce a more even heat for cooking. Want to learn more about making a fire, or see some tools to make it happen? Check out our other article on safely starting a fire and our hottest fire-starting products.

The stick

Find a stick that is small enough in diameter to fit through the fish’s mouth, but large enough to support the weight of it. It should be long enough that you can hold it over the fire without risk of burning yourself. Sharpen the end to a point. That’s it!


Insert the stick through the fish’s mouth and push it straight towards the tail. Poke the pointed end just slightly through the back of the fish, just above the tail. Hold the fish over the coals, rotating occasionally to avoid burning.

The time it takes to cook your fish will vary depending on the heat of the coals, how close your fish is to them, and the size of the fish, but 15 minutes is average. When you check the fish it should be hot, and the skin should peel from the meat without issue. If either of these things aren’t true, increase cooking time.

If you weren’t able to gut your fish, you can still cook it and pick the meat off but beware that the organs can house parasites and other undesirables. The organs will also slow your cook time. For both reasons, it’s important to cook your fish for a lot longer if you can’t gut it first.*

*Total Prepare does not encourage anyone to eat ungutted fish, but we understand that in a survival situation, choices may be limited. If you’re going to do it, we want you to understand the risks and ways to make it safer.


In a survival situation, fish are an excellent source of nutrients and calories. If you missed our previous article on how to catch them, you can find that here.

Thank you for reading.

This article was written by Zenia Platten – Author and emergency preparedness professional.

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