Sunday, January 10, 2010

Taxidermy: In which we discuss the flaying of the fish

Why, hello there, my tsantsa loving, guitar refinishing, spider web framing honey bunches of oats! (You know you are. My blog's stats can't lie.)

Today, we'll skin & gut a sea-dwelling critter! Yay!

You see, my uncle brought me a beautiful, HUGE red trout specimen, fresh from the waters of Chibougamau, located in the barren, frozen lands of eastern Canada. And my uncle, being a fun, quirky guy like me (ain't I great?), gave it to me. Not so I can stuff my face with it, but more so I can stuff the fish itself.

I'll try to give you step-by-step instructions concerning how I did it., after the jump.

First of all, you need a fish. Not a soft-bodied fish, though. A good ol' scale covered slimy bastard that's tasty battered and deep fried served with a beer. Here, I have a beautiful specimen of red trout.

Notice that it isn't red anymore; after a while, the fish's skin will lose it's color. It is normal, and at the end of the process, it shall be painted back to it's former glory.

Your fish doesn't need to be fresh. Mine was frozen. If it's the case, just let it thaw. However, be warned that you must skin it as soon as it is thawed.

You'll also need borax, and alcohol & salt can be useful.
A couple of blunt tools for scraping the flesh, plyers and forceps can also be handy.
Access to clean water is a must
you'll also need a sharp knife or scalpel. I used a craft knife.

First, a good idea is to trace the silhouette of the fish on a piece of paper, just to have a size reference for later, when you will stuff it. Also, I strongly recommend taking detailed pictures for the same purpose.


Once it is done, rinse your fish with cold water to remove as much slime as possible. Use paper towels to absorb the rest of the slime. A strong solution of alum can also be used, but personally, I'm alright with water and towels.

Now, wet the surface on which you'll work so the fish won't stick to it. Then, gently lay the fish, show-side* down, on the surface.

You must then make an horizontal incision from under the gill cover to the tail.

It's hard to see, but it's there.
Afterwards, make another incision, vertical this time, at the tail articulation, such as this:

It is important to make the incision shallow; you want to cut completely through the skin, but not through the flesh, or skinning will be quite a chore (and believe me, it's quite a pain already)

Here you can see I've already skinned most of this side. Try using your fingers, and go slowly, or you'll rip the skin.

You can also use a blunt tool to help you out, and scrape the flesh that sticks to the skin.

Start by skinning the top part, and when you reach the dorsal fin, stop, and skin the bottom part next. Once it's done, work with your finger to free the skin around the fins, and cut the bony anchor retaining them to the body. Here, you can see the ridge of the dorsal fin sticking out from the skin. Cut this ridge as close to the skin as you can.

Afterwards, it's just a matter of freeing the body from the other side of the skin. By pulling and scraping gently, it should be done easily.

It is then necessary to sever the tail joint from the rest of the body.

Afterwards, it's just a matter of pulling and snipping to remove the body from the neck. You must sever the spine and the oesophagus as far inside the head as you can. Strong shears will do the job quite well.

Be carefull not to remove the tongue or the gills; they are cartilaginous, so they'll dry out without rotting.

Then, you have to do the horrible job of removing the flesh from inside the head. Remove the eyeballs first, you'll then have access to the meat hidden behind the skin of the face. Use your fingers and small forceps to remove the flesh from the cheek area, working from the inside of the eye socket. Work gently or else you'll...


I tore out the cheek.

And it was the show-side of the face, dammit.

Oh well, for an inexperienced taxidermist, it's not the kind of thing that can be repaired easily. I guess I'll just snip off the head. It'll make the final defleshing easier.

So, if you're done removing the flesh from the inside of the head (can't help you anymore about that, sorry!), scrape the remaining flesh from the skin of the body so it's as clean as possible.

Rince the skin thoroughly, and let it macerate a couple hours (or overnight, like I'm doing) in a strong solution of Borax. Add as much borax to the water as you can. You can stop when the borax won't dissolve anymore.

If your skin has a tendency to lose its scales, add a bit of denatured or pure grain alcohol to the solution. You can also use salt. Personally, I used both. Better safe than sorry!

Ideally, the skin should be completely flat, not folded over itself, but I'm experimenting, here.

As you can see, taxidermy is quite a hard job, and it doesn't come out perfect often when you're a beginner. But when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!

Thus, since my fish is now without a useable head, instead of covering the creation of a fishing trophy mount, next time, we'll discuss the creation of...

the amazing

Who needs a head on their fish, anyways? ;)

*the side which will be displayed later on; the less damaged, or the most brightly colored, your choice.


  1. I got here initially from the Craftster forums and decided to look around for a bit. So cool. You've got the gothic thing without being girlie, which I totally dig! I really enjoyed reading your blog and I'm now subscribed through my google reader so keep up the great writing!

    I'm very interested in trying out your mermaid tutorial, but scaly fish like your trout aren't readily available in the waterways near where I live now in Tennessee, USA. We have a lot of catfish nearby, but they're just slimy skinned things. No scaly armored coating.

    Would a store-bought scaly fish be able to be used for this type of application as well despite being pre-gutted and the cut being clear up the center of the belly? Would this be detrimental to the finished product or just a mere inconvenience in that you would have to figure out how to hide the cut when you stuff the skin? Or maybe you'd have to work the seam in to the end design perhaps?

  2. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoy my blog ^^

    A store bought fish would do just fine, however the seam would, of course, be visible. If you are careful when you sew the skin together, you could manage to make it very subtle, though. Also, depending on the effect you want to achieve, a slightly visible seam might not be a problem.

  3. Hi, you have rekindled a disire to make a feejee mermaid that i have been thinking about for several years now. Its taken a week to get hold of Borax here in the uk,(always being told ye we used to sell that 20 years ago).i have just skined a sea bass and its now soaking in the borax meths soution. Will keep you posted if you are interested. Anyway thanks again for the nudge i needed. Yours DR Limpopo.

  4. i have aquiered some duck feet so as not to have to fiddle with intricate wire work, if only i could get my hands on a shriveled monkey head. Dr Limpopo

  5. I love your quirky way's!
    Ok now to step 2

  6. what about famaldahide injeck ?