Deboning Trout & Steelhead - It's All About Salmonoid Anatomy by Larry Ellis
Have you ever wondered how many bones there are in a trout?
Allow me to save you the trouble—I’ve counted them!
There are approximately 262 or so bones that people must fish through when eating just one rainbow trout, or in the case of its sea-run counterpart, a steelhead.
I have often heard that the best meat on a trout is next to the bone. That must surely be the case in a trout because all of the flesh is connected to a bone of some sort.
But just in case you are wondering, here’s the bone-yard breakdown.
There are approximately 62 vertebrae that make up the spinal column running from head to tail, with at least two or more bones extending from each vertebra.
There are between 27 and 30 pairs of large rib bones on the bottom of the fish with another 27 to 30 bones on the top of the spinal column. I’m not even counting those rib bones that split into two bones, also called Y-bones.
As you approach the tail section, add another 30 bones on both the top and on the bottom of the spine.
To that configuration, add 13 anal bones extending inward from the anal fin rays and 14 dorsal bones extending inward from the dorsal fin rays.
Now, as if that is not enough, add to those figures an additional 17 intramuscular bones (also known as pin bones and floating bones) on each side of the fish. Give or take 10 (mostly give) or so bones that I probably missed, and that’s how I came up with the final figure of 262 bones.
But any way you count them, somehow we all get used to it—picking the bones out of salmon, trout and steelhead as we eat them.
For most people, it is really not that big of a deal, or most likely, they pretend that it is not that big of a deal. But I’ll bet every angler one salmon egg that there hasn’t been at least one moment in their culinary experiences when they wished that their trout was totally bone-free.
As a kid, my dad used to tell me tales of bone-vaporizing magicians who had the skill of being able to extract all of the bones out of a trout. For a few years, I thought these people were just fictitious legends.
Well, those legends certainly do exist. Why not become one of them?
DEBONING – THE LAZY WAY AND THE RIGHT WAY
Now I’m not talking about taking the bones out of a fish after it has been cooked. To me, that’s cheating. I call that the lazy way of deboning.
I used to get a kick out of asking people if they knew how to debone a trout, mainly because almost always, every one of them gave the same answer as to how their deboning procedure was performed. The first two steps were always a laborious process that eventually led to the third, culminating step.
First came step 1.
After the trout was cooked, a person would carefully take the skin off the fish, discard or eat it, and then carefully pry the rib meat away from the fish’s ribs. Usually the person ended up picking a certain amount of those rib bones from their teeth, because once a trout is cooked, a rib bone easily separates from each vertebrae
Then came step 2.
The flesh that runs along the entire length of the fish, just above the ribs and almost the entire tail section behind the abdomen contains the most meat with the fewest bones, not including the dorsal bones and pin bones. If a person was really lucky, this section would come off in several, large bite-size portions. And if you were unlucky, like most folks, you ran into tons of other annoying bones.
However, the third step was what everyone was working toward, and defined their final deboning procedure.
At that point, the person eating the trout would grab onto the tail portion of the fish and gently lift it up and away from the flesh, hopefully taking with it most of the skeleton and leaving the other side of the fish to eat as one whole unit. To most people, that was the deboning procedure. But still, the dorsal and anal fin bones, not to mention all of those pesky pin bones were left to hopefully not pick through. Most everyone however, did.
Well my fellow fishermen, the aforementioned procedure is not deboning.
DEBONING THE RIGHT WAY
When I talk about deboning a trout, I’m talking about taking out “all” of the bones in a trout before it is cooked—with special emphasis on the word “before”.
Deboning a non-cooked trout is filleting a fish taken to the ultimate level while leaving most of the skin intact, and the cool thing is that anyone with a sharp knife and some rudimentary fish-cleaning skills is fully capable of performing this procedure.
Once you look at a trout’s skeleton, it is easier to see how the deboning procedure takes place. So what we’re talking about is understanding a trout’s anatomy.
The question most people might be asking themselves is, “Is all of this extra time really worth it?”
For the people who don’t mind eating a trout or a steelhead with all of the bones in them, the answer is probably “no”.
But personally speaking, I think picking through bones is a hassle. I mean, I even take the bones out of a smelt. It may be time-consuming, but the end result is well worth the effort.
And if you’re serving your guest's trout or steelhead for dinner, they will really appreciate not having to pick through any bones at all. So spoil yourselves, as well as your family and friends, and treat everybody to at least one or two bone-free experiences during their lifetime.
Deboning a trout allows you to stuff your trout or steelhead with your favorite concoction, be it crab, shrimp, bread stuffing, zucchini, squash, wild rice, mushrooms or a combination of all the aforementioned ingredients.
Deboning also allows you to cook the fish with its head and tail intact if you so desire. Some people, including myself, love the esthetics of a trout in its entirety—and so do good restaurants that enjoy serving up a deboned trout to their high-paying clientele.
You can debone and stuff any size trout or steelhead, however, anything above 2 pounds and under 8 pounds makes the best specimens. So those ODFW larger- or trophy-size rainbows, or any summer run or winter steelhead in the before-mentioned size ranges are ideal candidates for the deboning procedure.
FIRST THINGS FIRST – PREPARATION
The first thing you will want to do is to completely scale your fish.
After all the scales are removed, you will want to keep running your scaling apparatus on the skin from the tail toward the head, as if you were continuing to scale the fish.
When performing this procedure several times under running water, you will not only remove all the slime from the fish, but you will also notice dark pigmented material coming off the fish as well. This procedure creates a very clean fish skin that you can either eat or discard.
Now completely remove the guts and gills of the fish.
With a regular spoon or the spoon contained on the handle of some fillet knives, scrape out that black part (called the kidney) that runs along the inside of the fish’s spine from the tail toward the head.
It is absolutely necessary to take the kidney out of the fish first, even though you will be removing the spine. The kidney is made up of really rank stuff, and if you don’t take it out, you will run the risk of contaminating other parts of the fish with this pungent material in the deboning process.
Now that you’ve completely gilled, gutted, scaled and de-slimed your fish, you can now debone the trout using a 10-step process.
10 EASY STEPS IN DEBONING A TROUT
Starting near the head and close to the spine, slip the tip of your fillet knife underneath the first few ribs. Then follow the rib line toward the belly, slowly parting the ribs from the fish. Keep repeating this process while working from the head toward the tail, and then stop at the fish’s anus.
After one side is done, do the other side.
Now, starting from the tail and working toward the head, slide the knife downward along the spine toward the fish’s back. Gain a feel of the ribs and spine with the tip of your knife.
Now move the knife toward the head, keeping the tip of the knife as close to the back skin as possible while being extra careful not to pierce the skin. You will hear the pin bones being cut during this part of the process. After a little practice, you can execute this slice in one or two continuous motions. Do this on each side of the fish.
Now slip the tip of the knife alongside the spine near the fish’s anus and fillet the remaining tail section on each side of the fish. Be careful not to cut through the skin at the top of the fish and stop your filleting at the very beginning of the tail fin. The idea here is to keep as much of the skin on the fish as possible.
With scissors or wire cutters, cut through the spine as close to the tail as possible.
Cut through the spine as close to the head as possible.
Now, starting at the head of the spine and working toward the tail, carefully slide the fillet knife under the spine of the fish, cutting as close to the skin as possible.
The photo used in this article shows the butterflied trout spread eagle with the entire skeleton of the fish removed, including the vertebrae and most of the bones connected to them. Don’t worry if there is some flesh left on this section—the amount is nominal.
Pin bones are a pain. The larger the trout or steelhead is, the larger the pin bones will be, so they are well worth taking out. Using your pin bone tweezers (korin.com), the trick is to pull them out in the same direction in which they are laying.
So make your pull toward the head and then arch slightly upward. If you pull them in any other direction, they will break off. Sometimes, first wiggling them slightly before pulling them out will help loosen them and break their bond from the flesh.
You will love using dedicated fish bone tweezers as they are made of stainless steel and clean up very easily.
A lot of people will use needle nose pliers to remove pin bones, which is unsanitary because the fish flesh becomes trapped inside the grooves of the pliers. The stainless steel fish bone tweezers sold by Korin cost less than $5.00 a pair.
There are approximately 17 intramuscular floating pin bones on each side of the fish, but there will also be a few small bones near the head toward the front of the flesh as well. Use your finger to ascertain the position of these bones.
After all of the pin bones are removed, remove any dorsal or anal spines that are protruding through the top and bottom of the flesh, and then trim up the fish by cutting off the dorsal, adipose, anal, pelvic and pectoral fins.
You will probably end up with a gaping hole in the fish where the dorsal fin once was, but that’s normal.
- written by Larry Ellis