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Catching, Cleaning, and Cooking Fish for Survival

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: March 10, 2021
Catching, Cleaning, and Cooking Fish for Survival

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When you think about being out in the woods, what do you envision as a staple meal? Do you see yourself sitting by the fire roasting some fresh venison on a spit? Maybe you live in an area with a great deal of waterfowl, and you can see yourself enjoying some roasted duck? What you imagine in your mind is probably in large part dictated by the environment you live in. Wherever you live, one food that should be on your list of wild food is freshly caught fish.

In this article, you will learn the basics of cooking, cleaning, and cooking fish in a survival situation.

Catching Cleaning Cooking Fish for Survival | Backdoor Survival

Catching, Cleaning and Cooking Fish

Fish are a good source of nutrition in the woods for several reasons. One, they are abundant in many parts of the country. If you live near a lake, river, or stream, odds are there are fish of some kind living in those waterways. Secondly, fishing has always been a good way to procure food. Fishing is ideal because it is a passive activity. In other words, you don’t have to expend a tremendous amount of calories to get some in return. Thirdly, fishing has always been a reliable way to get food.

How old fishing is may never be known. People all around the globe fished during the Stone Age, and many people still rely on the bounty of the water. It is highly likely that at one point your ancestors depended on fish to survive. It may have been long ago, but the fact still remains. Odds are, many of you have carried on this age-old tradition, as fishing is one of America’s most popular outdoor pastimes.

Fishing for panfish is something the whole family can enjoy

For some people, though, there has been a disconnect in this chain of knowledge. Somewhere along the line you stopped fishing, or your family stopped fishing, and you want to get started once again. For those of you who need to get back to basics, here are a few basic pointers on the age-old pastime of fishing.

Catching Fish

Although I can’t claim to be a Master Angler, I know enough about the basics to offer advice to aspiring anglers. Fishing is one of those activities that has been greatly impacted by modern science. Specialty gear and lures are now the norm. However, for the purpose of this article, we’ll stay focused more on simple fishing techniques that don’t require a lot of investment. Not only will that make it easier for someone just learning, but it also is the kind of fishing that is best suited for light travel and survival.

Before tossing a line into the water, you first need to consider what kind of fish you want to target. If you live near a lake, you may have access to a wide variety of fish. Many lakes and ponds have some sort of panfish swimming about. Panfish refers to small fish like bluegill, perch, and crappie. These fish are generally small, abundant, and relatively easy to catch.

If you hook a worm on a bobber, toss the line out, and wait long enough, odds it will be one of these that takes the hook. To target panfish, make sure your bait is suspended off the bottom. How far off the bottom is determined by a number of factors. It might take some trial and error. You can also slowly reel in your bait, hoping to trip an instinctive response in the fish.

Another favorite fish you can start catching relatively easily are catfish. Catfish are generally plentiful in all waterways, but you can usually find them in rivers. These wide-mouthed fish use their “whiskers” to smell waterways for any food available. Good places to look for them are deep holes, bends, and fallen trees. You can catch them on a wide variety of bait, and, like panfish, worms work just fine. Knowing that catfish smell their food can be helpful. In fact, one source points to catfish being able to smell some scents at

Knowing that catfish smell their food can be helpful. In fact, one source points to catfish being able to smell some scents at one part per 10 billion parts water. If it stinks, odds are a catfish will at least check it out. Unlike panfish, catfish tend to hang near the bottom. The easiest way to fish for them is to find a good hole, attach a heavy sinker to your line, bait your hook, and just let it sit on the bottom. It may take some time, but if fish are around eventually one will come and give you a try.

Bowfishing | Backdoor Survival

Although carp are not viewed as an ideal fish, bowfishing is a productive way to fish

In recent years there has been a surge in popularity for a relatively new sport; bowfishing. If you don’t have the patience to sit and watch a bobber all afternoon, bowfishing offers another way to procure some fish for supper. Getting started in bowfishing is relatively cheap and easy, and is also a way to practice your archery skills.

When fishing with archery gear you’ll likely have the best opportunity to bring home another plentiful bottom feeder; carp. Carp are an invasive species in America and are wreaking havoc on our waterways. They haven’t caught on as table fare in the US, but in a situation where you just need something in your belly, they would certainly be suitable.

Cleaning Fish

Once you’ve gone out and were fortunate to catch something, the next step is to clean the fish. To be honest, there is no part of the fish you can’t eat. There is actually a current trend to consume all parts of a fish, and not waste anything. Most folks, however, prefer to clean their fish and remove the internal organs. There are two basic approaches to cleaning fish, gutting and filleting.

Gutting a fish is just about what it sounds like. Using your knife, make an incision from the anus of the fish, along the belly, to the bottom jaw. As you do this, try not to puncture any of the internal organs. Next, you can remove the head if you like, or take your knife and severe the internal organs that connect the head to the digestive and respiratory tract. With that chore completed, the next step is to reach in near the head and begin to peel out the internal organs. Generally, the organs come out fairly easily and soon the body cavity should be empty. With the guts out, next, you can simply wash the body cavity out with water.

Filleting a fish can be done after gutting, or in lieu of gutting as well. When filleting a fish you are simply trying to remove the meat portions of the fish from the skin. It starts with an incision near the head of the fish. Cut down behind the pectoral fin until you are straight with the spinal cord. Then you turn your knife 90˚ and start cutting laterally back toward the tail. Some folks cut clear through and remove the fillet at this point. Personally, I like the leave just a small bit of skin attached to the tail. When you flip the fillet, now meat-side up, you next slide your knife along between the meat and skin in order to cut the skin off. Leaving a small bit of skin attached at the tail holds the fillet in place as you remove the skin.

If you are more of a visual learner, here is a good YouTube video showing the filleting process.

Cooking Fresh Fish

As with catching fish, there are many different ways to cook a fish. You can get as fancy as you want, or as simple as you want. In keeping with the theme of simplicity, we’ll take a brief look at the absolute easiest way to cook your freshly caught fish. Although we’ll never know for sure, this method was likely used in Stone Age times as a cooking method.

This primitive cooking method will require only three ingredients; a fire, a small and sharpened stick, and a fish. For this method, it works best if your fish has been gutted and not filleted. Also, it is very helpful to leave the head on as well. To begin, get your fire going and begin building yourself a bed of coals.

Many people wrongly assume the best way to cook over an open fire is with the flames. It is true you can cook over the flames, but the heat is inconsistent and you can often scorch your meal. A better way to cook is to get your fire very hot, then let it dissipate into a bed of coals. Coals are very hot and the temperature is much more constant.

While you are preparing your fire you can begin working with your thin stick. The stick should be of a diameter small enough to pass through the fish’s mouth, but large enough to hold the fish without breaking. It should also be long enough where you can comfortably hold it while you cook. Whittle a point in one end of your stick with your knife. Now the stick is complete. I told you it would be simple!

Cooking Fish Simply | Backdoor Survival

Cooking fish can be as complicated or simple as you want to make it

Once your bed of coals is nice and toasty, your fish is gutted, and you have put a point on your stick, you are ready to begin cooking. Slide the pointed end through the fish’s mouth and continue until you have reached just in front on the tail. Gently puncture the flesh with the pointed end of the stick and allow the end to protrude out the backside. If you’ve done everything correctly, you should be able to hold the fish above the coals as it lays suspended on your roasting stick.

Cook time for this method depends on a few variables. How hot your coals are, how big your fish is, and how close you keep it to the coals all impact cook time. Generally, you can aim for around 15 minutes of cook time. When 15 minutes are up, check to see if the fish is done. When it is done the meat will easily flake off and leave the skin behind. If it is cold, or not flaking off the skin, you need to put it back to the heat in order to fully cook your meal.

The Final Word

Fishing is, and always has been, a good way of procuring food in the wild. For anyone interested in living off the land, it is a skill you should at least have a general knowledge of. On a final note, it is worth mentioning that in a true long term survival situation, small fish alone shouldn’t make up your entire diet. Small fish are good, nutritious, and should never be turned away, but panfish just don’t offer the caloric return you’ll probably need.

Again, eat fish with other wild edibles and you’ll be ok. Eat just fish, and you may not replenish all of your calories. That being said, fishing was and always will be a good way people all across the world keep putting food on the table.

Good luck to all those who would like to reconnect with this ancient pastime.


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Bargain Bin:  Below you will find links to the items related to today’s article as well as other personal favorites.

Vigilant Trails Pocket Survival Fishing Kit:  By now you know that I am a big fan of these pocket survival kits from Vigilant Trails.  One of the features of this kit is a uniquely designed fishing line winder. This piece of equipment takes the place of the traditional fishing rod, yet still allows you to easily cast and retrieve. Well priced with free shipping for everyone.

Vigilant Trails Snare Kit:  This is kit is another part of the Pocket Survival Kit series by Vigilant Trails.  Designed for small game under 25 pounds, the snares are pre-loaded have a super-fast closing action.   You could make a similar kit yourself, this is a terrific alternative to DIY.

Morakniv Companion Fixed Blade Outdoor Knife with Carbon Steel Blade: I can not say enough good things about the Morakniv.  I have a number of them including the “companion’ with a 4.1-inch blade and the Craftline” with a 3.6″ blade.  I use them in the kitchen as paring and utility knives and with the included sheath and carbon steel blades, they stay super sharp.

Preppers Holiday Gift Guide | Backdoor Survival

Morakniv Fishing Comfort Fillet Knife: There are many options when it comes to fillet knives.  I happen to be a fan of Morakniv so I would suggest starting your search here.

Cast Iron Skillet with Hot Handle Holder: I feel that everyone should own a basic 12” cast iron skillet for use when cooking outdoors over an open fire.  In spite of the myth, they are easy to care for and over time, will become a family heirloom.  On-grid or off grid, cooking with cast iron is the way to go.

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter:  The LifeStraw is considered the most advanced, compact, ultralight personal water filter available. It contains no chemicals or iodinated resin, no batteries and no moving parts to break or wear out. It weighs only 2 oz. making it perfect for the prepper. For more information, see my LifeStraw review.


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Author Bio: Cody Assmann is  an experienced outdoorsman who enjoys  hiking, hunting, gardening, and pursuing his passion for preserving the almost-lost skills of previous generations.   He is a social studies teacher in a rural corner of Nebraska who loves to share his knowledge not only with his students, but with the rest of the world.
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73 Responses to “Catching, Cleaning, and Cooking Fish for Survival”

  1. What you described was in compliance with most DNR laws for fishing but you didn’t describe the set up of a set line which would be vary valuable after the SHTF event. As a child I spent summers on my uncles farm and put a set line across their private lake and brought in 1# catfish almost every day. It was a low demand on my time and almost very dependable if I checked it morning and night.

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