When it comes to wilderness survival, one of the most basic and important skills to learn and practice is cleaning the fish and game you kill. While anyone can get a usable cut of meat, a practiced hunter or fisherman can make the most of what they take, and they can do it in the least amount of time. Being able to quickly and efficiently process fish and small game is one of the skills that separate true survivalists from interested amateurs.
Cleaning small game like rabbit or squirrel is a lot easier than you might expect. Their skin is loose enough to peel off of the meat, and although it takes a bit of practice, breaking down the animal into cuts of meat is much more straightforward and simple than with larger game. In general, the animal needs to be skinned, gutted, and possibly broken down into halves or quarters.
The most important thing you can do to make your first time cleaning small game go smoothly is secure the animal properly for skinning. Cordage is probably the easiest way to accomplish this, tied around the ankle joints of the animal. Remove the head and front feet before you begin.
It takes less cutting than many people think to skin small game, typically just two cuts, one on each leg, from the groin going up the inside of each leg. From those initial cuts you’ll want to use your hand in order to peel the skin down, eventually leaving it hanging from the forelegs of the animal.
Squirrel can be skinned even easier, thanks to their large, tough tails. Although not all small game can be cleaned in the same way as squirrel can, if you’re going to take squirrel then it’s worth taking the time to learn because the method in the following video is so much faster.
After the animal is skinned, gut it by making an extremely shallow slice from the sternum to the anus and removing the organs by hand. Slice around the anus to remove the intestines completely, being careful not to tear them open and foul the meat. Look for dark glands around the anal opening, on the legs, or near the genitals of the game and remove them as they can contribute to a “gamey” flavor.
Reaching into the body cavity, you’ll be able to feel the heart, liver, lungs, and kidneys of the animal. All of the organs that typically don’t come out with the intestinal mass of the game are edible, although kidneys can be an acquired taste and are often discarded or used as bait.
After your small game is cleaned of its organs and washed, the legs can be removed. There is an excellent cut of meat, called the backstrap, that runs parallel to the spine. In many small animals this is where most of the meat is, and with squirrel many people take only the legs, occasionally the tender backstrap in larger animals, and put the rest in the stockpot. Rabbit and other small game typically have shoulders that are worthwhile, although the ribs yield very little edible meat.
Depending on the knife that you carry, cleaning and filleting fish can be much easier than processing small game or much, much more difficult. When it comes to fish, it’s important to remember that they’re often cooked whole, guts and all, in much of Asia and other areas with a strong survival fishing culture. While it’s not especially palatable for most Americans, sometimes it’s better to cook a fish whole, scales removed, than to try and fillet it with a knife that’s much too large for the job. Cooked meat can be picked off the bones, and the organs and offal left behind or used as bait.
Assuming you’re not in a survival situation where you need the fat and calories found in the organs, you can clean a fish fairly well without a fillet knife. With larger fish it’s a good idea to slice or entirely remove the end of the tail in order to bleed the fish out before you begin. When you’re using your survival knife to clean fish, it’s a better idea to scrape the scales than to try to remove the skin entirely from the fillets.
Holding the knife straight, just like you would if you were preparing to slice through the body of the fish, run the knife against the direction of the scales. The blade or spine of the knife can be used depending on your preference. You’ll be able to feel the scales catch the knife and come off, and see the newly-exposed skin as you scrape. Take care to remove as many scales as possible since they’re inedible.
After the fish is scaled, make two deep cuts down the body of the fish. One just before the fin on the tail and the other around the head of the fish and just behind the gills. These two cuts (shown as black lines) should stop before they hit the thin skin of the belly in order to avoid slicing open organs unnecessarily.
Now, with the blade of your knife parallel to the backbone of the fish, slowly slice around the back, keeping as close as possible to the spine. Peel back the meat that you’ve cut free and continue moving your knife back and forth, working your way down the side of the fish. Stay as close to the ribs as possible and work slowly until you reach the area near the belly where the flesh is thin. While the fillet is still attached to the belly fold it over, skin side down, and slice the fillet free of the body of the fish (shown as a red line).
With a little bit of practice it’s easy to clean even the smallest of fish with a large fixed blade knife. Although a fillet knife helps to remove the skin, simply scaling the fish and leaving the skin on the fillet allows you to use any knife you have available to clean your catch. Spend extra time inspecting the fillet for pin bones, since larger knives can easily slice through and leave them in the fillet.