How to Fillet a Big Salmon

I debated about whether I should actually post this, or whether I should just keep it as a personal note. But the reason I started this blog was for me to keep notes and track things I get up to, and possibly as a result help other folks wading through the same waters, so why not post it?

This year we’ve had an epic Coho (aka Silver Salmon) run here in Juneau. Last weekend I went out and landed my first coho on a fly rod, a 10 pound beauty. I was out there with easily a hundred other anglers all lined up on the shore of the channel, everyone pulling in bright chrome fish. It felt like a community celebration. While I was standing out in waist-deep water, a couple of sea lions showed up and got in on the action, throwing their fish around not one hundred feet away from us.

A nice 10# coho, my first on a fly rod!

A nice 10# coho, my first on a fly rod!

This fish was my fifth in the last two weeks, and I haven’t actually been fishing all that much, although I am going to award myself points for variety. I caught three trolling, one spin casting, and one fly fishing. This means that I’ve now had a lot of practice solo fish filleting in the last two weeks on fairly large fish.

I went from really really REALLY embarrassingly bad at filleting, to now feeling like I won’t die of shame when someone checks out my side fillets. For the first three I watched some YouTube videos and tried to do all three over a lunch hour. The only video I found was of some British guy filleting a small Atlantic salmon. Not helpful. For the last two I told my dad what a hard time I was having and he basically gave me the following run through as we were driving back from fly fishing. I’ve added some personal notes as well.

How to Fillet a Big Salmon

Supplies

  • Kitchen towel (one that can get super mucky)
  • Newspaper (at least one sheet per side of salmon – you can use paper towels in a pinch)
  • Large cutting board – the big plastic white ones are great, cheap, and easy to clean
  • Large sharp chef’s knife
  • Fillet knife (or you can use a nicely sharpened paring knife)
  • Cookie sheet
  • Small bowl

Steps

  • Run your kitchen towel quickly under water so it’s just damp. Lay it on the counter. Put your cutting board on top of your kitchen towel. Lay out a sheet of newspaper on top of the cutting board. The towel is so your cutting board won’t slide around and the newspaper is so your salmon won’t slide around.
  • Lay your salmon down with the dorsal fin facing you and the salmon’s head to your left.* The head of the salmon should be off of the cutting board. This allows for the fish to lay nice and flat.
  • Make your first cut with your chef’s knife angled towards the salmon head, cutting just behind the gill plate. Cut clear down to the spine. When you hit the spine, keep your blade in hand, and then turn your blade towards the tail, cutting along the spine. You can get a good grip on the gill plate to hold the fish in place.
  • Holding the gill plate with your left hand, forcefully cut your side fillet, cutting straight through the ribs of the fish, you’ll feel and hear them click click click as you cut back. This is the step that was difficult for me to wrap my head around because I was worried about getting every little scrap of meat. Don’t worry about it, whatever you miss here, you’re going to go back and get later.
  • Lay the full side on your cookie sheet.
  • Lift up the salmon and lay a new sheet of newspaper down.
  • Lay the salmon back down, with the dorsal still facing you and the head off the cutting board, but now with the head to your right. Cut the side fillet off in the same manner.
  • Lay the second full side on your cookie sheet.
  • Using your fillet knife (or a spoon), scrape off any remaining meat from the bones and throw in the small bowl. You’ll get a fair amount of meat. This stuff is great for salmon cakes (watch for a recipe later).
  • Either set aside your carcasses for salmon stock or crab bait, or throw away.
  • Lay out a new sheet of newspaper to either go through the whole process again with another fish, or to start working on your sides.
  • For each side:
    • Rinse
    • Using your fillet knife, cut off rib bones by pulling up on their edge and running your knife quickly along the underside, blade angled toward the bones. Continue until you get down to the point where they naturally stop.
    • Cut off the belly of the salmon, trimming your side fillet so that it has a nice straight edge along the bottom.
    • Either skin your bellies and throw them in your scrap bowl, or leave skin on and either vacuum seal or cook ’em up!

*If you’re a lefty, do the first side with the salmon head to your right.

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