I admit it, I have a life-long addiction to knives.
Being a professional chef for 30 years, I've collected hundreds of them. Knives of every shape and size, some cumbersome and even some archaic. I'm also an avid angler, so friends and casual acquaintances often quiz me about the perfect fillet knife.
First and foremost is the feel. Does it fit comfortably in my hand? Is there anything that protrudes or doesn't feel right? If you use a knife for long, you can develop blisters. This alone puts it back in the drawer. A knife should fit like a glove, an extension of your body, but this doesn't mean that any one knife is perfect for everyone.
Next is the length of the blade. I find a 7- to 8-inch knife ideal. I can clean a walleye, pike, or perch with it, and handle a 5-pound lake trout. A short blade might look and feel good; some people find them agile or nimble. But when you try to fillet a 6-inch wide trout with a 5-inch blade, the result looks butchered.
Next, the type of steel is important. Proper heat-treating, such as good "tempered steel" is crucial. Some knives now are titanium-bonded, which adds strength and corrosion-resistance to good steel. Some people wonder why some fillet knives never hold an edge; it's because they're made with cheap steel or not tempered properly.
Knives are tangible. You should feel for several traits: its weight, comfort, style, and most importantly the knife blade itself, is it sharp? That's what I'm doing as I write this article — feeling each of these knife samples for those attributes. Here are my picks for five fine fillet knives:
Cuda Titanium Bonded Wide Fillet Knife
Right away, I liked the way this knife looks and feels. You can see the full "tang" through the stylish blue and clear handle. This raises the question — why is a full tang important? When the steel extends down through the knife grip, it's stronger and has a more solid feel. Knives that rely on one inch of steel in the handle to hold everything together don't cut as easily and may break.
Cuda fillet knives also have an anti-slip handle and ingenious hole in the top to place your thumb or index finger for a firm grip. These knives go through a patented titanium-bonding process that makes them three times stronger than regular stainless steel, and corrosion-resistant as well. For me, it has the perfect flex, not too stiff and not too whippy.
Its sheath features a spiral design on the inside that allows water to "swirl" around when cleaning off fish guts or remnants. It also has a drain hole so it dries quickly. Moreover, Cuda offers a lifetime warranty on all of its tools. cudabrand.com
Pros: Razor sharp right out of the box €¢ High-quality German 4116 stainless steel €¢ Flexible blade Non-slip scale-pattern grip on handle €¢ Fits nicely in hand
Cons: Too many models to choose from (10 at last count, including Professional models)
Rapala Fish'n Fillet
A staple among anglers around the world, I have one that's over 60 years old and still razor-sharp. I like its slightly tapered blade and curved tip, an effective style for ease of filleting fish. It has a full tang with a stainless steel blade along with the recognizable birch handle and the timeless leather sheath.
They're still the number one selling fillet knife in the world. rapala.com
Pros: Long semi-flexible blade €¢ Curved tip €¢ Extremely sharp
Cons: Handle may be a bit short for some €¢ Sheath holds moisture €¢ Handle can be slippery
Buck Clearwater Fillet Knife
Buck doesn't make knives only for hunting. This one has a comfortable rubberized handle and a full-tang blade, featuring a triple-edge design. This unique design allows you to cut on both sides of the tip with ease, an interesting concept.
Some people prefer a flexible blade; this is the most flexible of the knives I reviewed. But my preference in fillet knives is for more backbone, which increases control and sensitivity. buckknives.com
Pros: Comfortable rubber grip with groove for index finger and thumb
Cons: Tip could be more pointy
Cabela's Alaskan Guide Fillet Knife
A Cabela's exclusive knife from Buck is now in stores. With an overall length of 11 inches and a 6-inch blade, this knife quickly caught my eye in the glass cabinet. The Alaskan Guide Fillet Knife is crafted from S30V, an incredibly hard steel that holds an edge longer than most. Another enduring quality is the black coating on the blade, which is a titanium nitride coating on the steel.
It's well balanced and has a fine rosewood handle. A knife like this warrants passing down to the next generations. I also found it excellent for ducks and geese. cabelas.com
Pros: Stylish and razor sharp
Rapala Ion Electric Knife
A few years back, some friends and I had just returned from walleye fishing on Lake of the Woods. With quite a few fish to clean, I was put in charge so out came my trusty knife. That's when a friend suggested I try his Rapala Ion electric knife. I hesitated, then I stammered, "Umm, yah, I don't think so."
Growing up, the "electric knife" was reserved for Sunday family gatherings, where my grandfather used it to carve our traditional roast, or should I say, shred.
My buddy told me not to be stubborn and give it a try. I was duly impressed with the speed, sharpness, and accuracy of the twin oscillating blades. It cut effortlessly through the bones and slipped smoothly beneath the skin, I hope my mentors never learn that I've gone over to the "dark side. Here's to you, Grandpa. rapala.com
I've noticed recently that many manufacturers are putting more thought into their sheath designs. Many have a cover that allows knives to "lock in" or click into place, which can be important for safety. And several are made of hardened plastic with grooves to aid air flow for fast drying. It's about time.
Here are my choices for honing and sharpening your prized possessions:
DMT DuoSharp Bench Stone
People use the term "game changer" all the time, but in this case I found a true contender when it comes to sharpening knives. The DMT Bench Stone is a double-sided diamond sharpener that gives you the quickest and best edge you've ever seen. It's the guaranteed flat surface and high-quality mono-crystalline diamonds of equal size and shape that make the difference. They're available in different diamond grit combinations from coarse to extra fine in 8- and 10-inch sizes (I prefer the 10-inch). With a non-skid holder, this is the ultimate choice for obtaining a razor-sharp knife. dmtsharp.com
Zwilling Henckels Honing Steel
I've had this tool for 25 years because it doesn't wear out. It's intended to "hone" or quickly touch up your knife. A flat stone establishes the edge, while a steel enhances it.
My rule whenever I pick up a knife to do a task: Quickly give it 6 swipes across the steel at a 22-degree angle, three swipes on each side, that's all it takes. The key is to hone the edge at the same angle you sharpened it on the stone. Consistency is key. zwilling.ca
Cameron Tait, Winnipeg, Manitoba, heads the Chef Apprenticeship and Culinary Foods Program in the Paterson Global Foods Institute at Red River College. He's also an avid angler and hunter.