(Photo: Simon Day/The Spinoff)

How to skin a kingfish with Clarke Gayford

The first fisherman shows Simon Day how to fillet a fish using the famous Gisborne method. 

On a dull January afternoon, Clarke Gayford took two of The Spinoff staff into the Hauraki Gulf on a fishing expedition. I was there to take photos, while Spinoff editor Toby Manhire interviewed Gayford about his famous partner’s first 18 months in office and his first seven months as a father for 1972 magazine.

We set up off Tiritiri Matangi island and immediately started reeling in kingfish. We managed to keep three of these beautiful beasts away from the bronze whalers.

Back on land, we rammed our designated fish into the office fridge destined to be served to the staff for lunch the following day. But when we got back to the office with a giant kingfish waiting for us, we found ourselves in an awkward situation – no one knew what to do with it. So Gayford agreed to pop into The Spinoff to teach me how to fillet a kingfish – Gizzy style.  

Gayford and I squeezed into the cramped kitchen and laid the beautiful fish out on the bench.

“I can show you the local Gisborne way of doing it?” Gayford suggested.

“Yeah let’s do it the Gizzy way,” I said enthusiastically, unsure of what that actually meant. Little did I know it would result in fish skin and scales being stuck in my front teeth.

The key to the Gisborne method is to start by trimming an outline of the entire fillet. Make a firm vertical cut down the back of the head, and start to curve your knife back past the pectoral fin, then continue on a 45-degree angle to the bottom of the fish’s belly. Run your knife along the base of the fish to the tail. Then make a vertical cut across the bottom of the tail.

Now back to the head. Make an incision all the way along the top of the backbone about two centimetres deep.

Finally, using your knife, peel a small flap of skin, about four centimetres long, at the top of the fillet’s outline just above the pectoral fin at the base of the head. Grab the fish by the tail in one hand, press down firmly on its head with the other, and then take the flap of skin between your teeth. Pull hard away from the fish at a 45-degree angle, the skin held tightly in your mouth. In one smooth motion, peel the skin off the fillet. When it reaches the tail, snatch it off with your hand.

“This mate of mine in Gisborne who lives up the coast showed me how to do that,” Gayford said as he wiped scales off his mouth into the kitchen sink. “It’s because he does it for his family, he wants to keep all the protein on the fish. Doing it that way just the skin comes off and you’ve kept all the filet there. You’re in business.”

“After that, it’s just filleting like a normal fish.”

Bonus Clarke Gayford filleting tips

Always work on an angle with your knife. There are often scales that get in the way, so if you come in on an angle you slide under the scales.

Work in long, clean strokes, rather than sawing your way through the fish. It will ensure a pristine fillet, one that doesn’t waste any meat.

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Use as little water as possible during the filleting process. Too much and you’ll introduce bacteria and it will spoil a lot quicker in the fridge. If you can keep it away from water, it will last quite a bit longer.

The other trick with fish is to always wash your hands with cold water. That stops them smelling.


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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