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Idaho Fish and Game

Salmon ready for processing

Hot tips for processing salmon and steelhead


Learn how to get the most from your harvested fish.

Fall salmon and steelhead fishing is in full swing, and many happy anglers are celebrating the fall season with delicious fish in their coolers and on their tables. Filleting and processing large salmon and steelhead can be intimidating to some people, so this article was written to help those individuals and maybe provide some new tricks to the seasoned anglers to ensure you get the most out of your catch.

Caring for your catch starts on the river, and it is good practice to bleed salmon and steelhead immediately after catching them and then quickly get them in a cooler and covered with ice. This will ensure your catch stays fresh until you get home.

When you are ready to process your catch, start with a clean working area and wipe the exterior of your fish of any blood and slime. Use a sharp fillet knife to remove the fillets from your fish, working carefully to remove as much meat as possible. Many people struggle to get a good fillet off the second side of their fish once the first side is removed. One trick to get better fillets from both sides is to make all the major cuts on each side (down the back, through the tail, and over/through the ribs) before removing either fillet from the fish. Try this next time you fillet a salmon, steelhead, or trout and see if it helps get more consistent fillets.

Salmon ready for processing
A Chinook Salmon ready for processing.

Once the fillets are removed, trim any fatty areas from the fillet and remove the pin bones if desired. If you plan to freeze any of your catch, a vacuum sealer is a good way to package your fish before freezing it. Many people stop processing at this point, discard the remainder of the carcass, and fail to realize there are several other useable parts on a salmon, steelhead, or trout.

One way to get more meat from your catch is to use a spoon to scrape up the meat that remains on the carcass after the filleting process. Notice how clean the ribs and area above the backbone are in the photo on the right compared to the one on the left after scraping the carcass with a spoon. Do this to both sides of a large fish and you will be surprised how much meat you can recover. This meat is great for making salmon cakes or using in other recipes such as stir fry.

Chinook Salmon fillet
Chinook Salmon before and after scraping meat from the bones.

Another meat source hiding in plain sight is what is known as the “collar”. The collar meat is located just behind the head and gill operculum and extends from the back to the belly and has some of the richest meat on the fish in terms of fat content. Check out this link to see a video on how to remove the collars from a salmon:

Salmon collar

Salmon collars are best grilled or smoked, or can be used in fish stews and chowders.

Salmon collars
Chinook Salmon collars before and after grilling. Note the marbled fat that makes Salmon collars so delicious.

With the fillets, rib/backbone meat, and collars removed you have most of the edible parts that your catch will yield, but there are still other useable parts on your fish! Chinook and steelhead belly meat can be cooked and eaten, but is more often used by anglers as bait to target other species including sturgeon and catfish. The tough skin of the belly meat keeps the bait firmly attached to the hook and the oily flesh makes it an attractive bait.

Eggs are another prized part of harvested fish and most anglers who are fortunate to harvest a female fish know the eggs they carry with them make great bait for future outings. Removing the egg skeins and preserving them using various egg cures for future salmon and steelhead fishing trips is just one more way to make the most of your catch and hedge your bets towards successful trips in the future. 

Chinook salmon processed

By now your salmon or steelhead carcass is looking pretty thin and has been put to good use. Instead of throwing the rest in the garbage, consider burying the carcass in your garden to fertilize future crops. You will be amazed how quickly a buried fish carcass can be broken down, leaving valuable nutrients in the soil. Lastly, if you’re really feeling adventurous, consider using the head in a delicious fish head soup recipe like the one found here:

The next time you harvest a salmon, steelhead or large trout, try to get the most out of that fish by incorporating some of these tips into your fish processing routine!