How do you fillet a trout? To be honest, most of the time you don’t. Trout are notoriously boney. Subsequently, many of the trout that end up on plates or roasting over a campfire are small, say, 15 inches or less. Given that the smaller a fish the tinier and more delicate the bones, it’s often easier to prepare them whole and simply peel the meat away from the bones after they’re cooked. There are, however, perks to making a little extra effort to properly fillet your trout. The biggest benefit to filleting a trout vs gutting one, at least in my opinion, is flavor.
Filleting Trout vs Gutting Trout
I grew up gutting my trout, stuffing the body cavity with herbs, spices, lemon, and butter, and foiling them for a fire or tossing them in the broiler. The problem with this method is that no matter how many accouterments you stuff in that gut, it never really seems to flavor the meat. Even if I pan sear a whole trout, the flavor doesn’t seem to penetrate the flesh as much as I’d like. Conversely, a bone-free fillet that’s seasoned well and seared meat-side down will quickly absorb any white wine, garlic butter, or lemon pepper you shake and smear on it. And let’s be real, trout aren’t exactly the most flavorful fish that swim, so it’s worth enriching the taste as much as possible.
There’s no question that you’ll get a nicer, cleaner fillet off a trout measuring north of 17 inches, but even if you’re loading a stringer with 12-inch stockers, they can be filleted. You’ll have to take your time, and it’s worth investing in a short, thin, flexible knife, but you’ll appreciate the results far more than letting them steam in their own juice wrapped in aluminum foil on the grill. Here’s a quick breakdown of how I fillet my trout.
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Step 1: Don’t Gut Them
It’s common for trout fishermen to gut their fish at the river or lake. Even if they don’t do it on the water, slitting the gut open to remove the innards is often step one back in the kitchen. If I intend to fillet my trout, however, I don’t remove the guts first. Keeping the whole trout intact makes it easier to hold and maneuver the fish while filleting. Whole trout also don’t slide around on the cutting board so badly.
Step 2: Make Your Cut
Rinse the trout in cold water and dry it as thoroughly as possible with paper towels. This will help it stick to the cutting board more effectively. Position the fish with its back facing you. Using the tip of your knife, make a shallow slice starting from the back of the head to the base of the tail running the blade just above the dorsal fin. Keep running the knife through the initial cut making sure the back of the blade is touching the fish’s spine. During this process you might hear or feel the knife cutting right through the fish’s fine ribs. Keep working carefully down the body until the fillet separates from the fish near the belly. Repeat this step on the opposite side of the trout.
Step 3: Debone the Fillets
Now that you have two fillets, lay them on the cutting board skin side down. Thus begins the most time-consuming portion of the job—rib removal. If you want to get fancy you can order a cheap pair of deboning tweezers, a tool designed specifically for this task. I, however, have found that the same pair of hemostats I use to get my hooks out of a trout’s mouth does the job just fine. I will caution, though, that I don’t recommend using your fingernails to pull the rib bones. You often end up denting and mangling the fillet while doing so. With smaller trout the ribs can be so fine and fragile that they’ll slip from your grasp or break off in the meat. With your tool of choice in hand, run your fingertip down the fillet feeling for the ends of the ribs. Grab each one individually and slowly pull it out.
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Step 4: Savor the Flavor
Although it’s common to take the skin off the fillets of many species of fish, leave the skin on you trout. Their skin is too fine and brittle, and the meat won’t hold together well if it’s removed.
Trout Filleting Q&A
How do you fillet trout without bones?
You can fillet trout without bones by using this method but it’s not very effective on smaller trout.
How do you get pin bones out of trout?
A better way to get boneless fillets is to pluck out the pin bones with a forceps like I do. Either method is a little time consuming, but worth it.
Is trout better with skin on or off?
Leave the skin on. You’ll thank me later.
Final Thoughts on Filleting Trout
Now that you’ve got two bone-free fillets, all you have to do now is liberally season them and drop them in a hot skillet or under the broiler for a trout dinner that will be more satisfying than any whole trout you’ve ever eaten.