Most seafood purchases consist of a nicely wrapped, pre-portioned, de-boned, ready to cook piece of fish. It makes sense to buy this way, as it cuts down prep time and leaves the home chef with much less clean up. But what happens when you decide to buy the whole fish and bring it home, scales and all? What do you do with a fish you catch when you want to throw it on the grill? Here's a step-by-step process on how to prepare a whole fish for the grill. We are going to use a sheepshead as an example due to the fact that it is one of the harder fish to scale because of its armor-like exterior.
So you caught a sheepshead, or some other delicious scaly fish, that you want to prepare at home, whole fish style. Go ahead, give your best primitive YAWLP! and get the fire going. Begin by setting up your station. If you are in the kitchen, it's best to place a perforated pan under the fish or line the sink with an open plastic bag to catch the scales. Doing this task beach side is even better, as long as you have a fresh water source handy. Scales go everywhere, and when I say everywhere I mean it. You could be finding scales weeks later in places you didn't know existed (just ask my wife) and they don't easily go down the drain. Sometimes doing this task outside makes for a much cleaner kitchen.
You're also going to need a scaler, you can pick these up in most big box stores or local tackle joints, although a heavy duty serrated knife will work in a pinch. It's also good to have a sharp fillet knife and scissors handy, as well as a trashcan.
Place the fish in the sink or table you are using, holding on tightly to the head with your opposing hand. With your strong hand, use the scaler, teeth on the fish with a firm force, and work it going against the scales horizontally. They should "pop" off like little kernels of popcorn. This works for most scaled fish, but for sheepshead and other larger scaled fish, you actually have to work the scaler vertically, slowly, moving across the fish's body. Picture going down the fish, row by row, like a farmer pulling weeds. When working with a sheepshead, it's important to remember that going across the sheepshead's body with the scaler like you would most fish will get you nowhere fast.
Once most of the scales have been removed, rinse the fish and go back over the spots you missed, since there will always be some. Also, now is a good time to get the underside of the fish. This task is more tedious as you do not want to puncture the belly, so you have to be a tad more delicate with your movements in this area. Now flip the fish and repeat, until the fish is clear of scales. Rinse.
Now we gill. With strong hands, lift the gill flaps so that the gills present themselves in all their bloody glory. Fresh blood is a great sign, it means fresh fish. Dig your fingers to the base of the red gills and remove them from the fish. If you can't quite get in there, feel free to take the scissors and cut them out, using the tips. After they are removed, you want to slide your finger tips in the area where the gills once were and scrape any remaining residue. To get a better grip on the fish, you might want to use a towel to hold the back of the fish. Be careful of the back spines of the fish, they are very sharp and can teach you a valuable lesson very quickly. Some people cut these spines and fins off before working with the fish to avoid getting stabbed. I recommend doing what's best for you, and being safe is always better than being sorry.
Once you've made the incision, squeeze your fingers into the cavity and, starting towards the front of the fish, grip and pull the guts away from the fish. You are going to want to get your fingers around the base of where they start, so make sure your fingers are right against the top of the collar when you grip. Try to pull everything out in one motion. Be on the lookout for roe, as this can be a tasty dinner snack or a really good breakfast when fried. Roe is usually contained in orangish to yellowish sacks with small, visible veins.
All that is left is to make sure that you scrape the cavity to rid the fish of any gut remnants with your fingers, then rinse the cavity and fish thoroughly with fresh water. Score each side of the fish by lightly breaking the skin with your blade. Season both sides generally with oil and seasonings and feel free to stuff the cavity with lemon, fresh herbs, and garlic. Get your YAWLP! ready, fishing season is on!