February 25, 2019
By Dan Johnson
Traditional fillet knives allow precise cuts and work wonders on panfish, pike, walleyes, and trout. Still, there’s no denying that in the right hands, electric fillet knives allow anglers to clean their catches faster, and with less effort, than their old-school counterparts—which explains why many guides, particularly panfish guides who clean a ton of fish, prefer electric options over human-powered cutlery.
“It comes down to efficiency and proficiency,” says veteran guide Aaron McQuoid, who pursues multitudes of yellow perch, walleyes, and pike on North Dakota’s famed Devils Lake.
“The blades on electric knives stay sharp a lot longer, so you’re not stopping to sharpen them,” he says. “Plus, you don’t have to exert force to drive the blade, so they’re less work, which makes them perfect for cleaning large numbers of fish, and for anyone with arthritis or other hand or joint issues.”
Guide Brandon Fulgham concurs. Proprietor of Grenada Lake Fishing Guides, situated in the middle of Mississippi’s famed “Arc of Slabs,” Fulgham fillets more than 10,000 broad-shouldered crappies every year, plus countless catfish and other catches destined for the table. Although he’s never set foot on a lake with ice cover, his testimony lends credence to the topic at hand. “I use an electric fillet knife on everything,” he says. “They’re fast and efficient and I don’t have to sharpen blades before and during the cleaning process.”
SELECT Electric Knives
Motor speed, torque, quality construction, handling, and grip are a few of the primary features that make he BUBBA 110V Electric Fillet Knife a top performer in the electric knife category. The knife features a set of four high-carbon blades (7-inch E-Flex, 9-inch E-Flex, 9-inch E-Stiff & 12-inch E-Stiff), each coated with Titanium Nitride for extra resistance to corrosion, and a ventilation system designed for maximum motor and transmission output—making it the most efficient cut on the market. And the included EVA-molded carrying case stores everything that comes with this knife. For more information, visit www.bubbablade.com Retail: $134.95
Top choice of veteran guide Aaron McQuoid, the 110-volt Pro Electric Fillet Knife from American Angler boasts an 8-inch blade and twice the torque of previous models, for smooth and consistent filleting. Added amenities include an ergonomic design, powerful gear and motor system, 2-year warranty, and handy carry bag with venting to banish odor and corrosion—$109, basspro.com.
Best known for its winning lines and softbaits such as PowerBait and Gulp!, Berkley also tenders a suite of handy tools and accessories, including the Turboglide Cordless Knife. Armed with 7½-inch precision-ground, chrome-plated stainless blades, this cordless cutup runs on a long-lasting rechargeable Li-ion battery and features an advanced motor design that delivers impressive speed and torque for its size. Comes with folding fillet board, charger, and carrying case—$99, berkley-fishing.com.
A familiar name on the electric fillet knife scene, Mister Twister recently upped the ante in cutlery with the “bad to the bone” Piranha. Wielding the same rugged design as the original Mister Twister Electric Fisherman knife, the Piranha also features 25 percent more torque and 15 percent faster blade speed than standard electric knives. Coupled with a heavy-duty 9-inch stainless-steel blade, it’s ready for preparing super-sized fresh- and saltwater catches. Comes with 2-year warranty—$48, mistertwister.com.
Rapala has a popular lineup of electric fillet knives that, as crappie kingpin Brandon Fulgham can attest, stand up to the rigors of prolonged and arduous use. The new Rapala Lithium Ion Cordless Fillet Knife expands the family, offering anglers a long-running, clean-cutting cord-free option. Sold as a combo kit with two lithium-ion batteries, 6- and 7½-inch reciprocating blades, EVA-padded case and convenient wall charger—$149, rapala.com.
A knock against cordless knives has been their tendency to slow down as the battery drains, but the Lithium Ion Cordless produces consistent speed and torque, without reduced power or slowdown, throughout 80 minutes of continuous runtime. As a bonus, the knife offers a comfortable, relaxed grip that fights fatigue, plus an advanced airflow design for cool, smooth performance.
Electric Knife 101
Electric knives can cut a variety of foods, but they’re especially good for cutting meat and bread. While electric knives typically don’t work well for extremely tough cuts of meat and soft foods, like tomatoes, they excel at slicing and dicing anglers’ catches.
Most electrics feature a pair of serrated blades that clip together for stability. Blades lock into the handle for cutting, and are removed for easy cleaning or sharpening.
When you turn on an electric knife by pulling a trigger, flipping a switch, or pushing a button, a small electric motor in the handle moves the blades back and forth. Think of it as the twin-bladed kitchen version of a jobsite reciprocating saw. Depending on the RPMs supplied by the motor and gearing, an electric fillet knife’s blades can move at a surprisingly pace, allowing them to slice through fish fast.
As with other types of cutlery, a variety of blades are available for electric knives, allowing you to tailor length and design to the task at hand, whether it’s filleting fish, carving meat, or slicing a loaf of bread. Many knives are sold with interchangeable blades of differing lengths and designs, allowing you to mix and match as needed.
McQuoid encourages anglers to pay attention to blade design. “You can fillet fish with a round-ended bread knife,” he says. “I’ve done that before, but the sharp points and thin, flexible blades found on fillet knives make fish-cleaning easier.”
For maximum durability, look for stainless-steel blades that won’t tarnish or warp. Blade lengths ranging from 6 to 9 inches are ideal. McQuoid favors an 8-inch Shark blade from American Angler. “It’s thin, which means less resistance when slicing through a fillet, and more flexible than other options,” he says.
He’s tinkered with different blades and motors in search of the perfect combination. “I’ve been guiding for 27 years,” he says. “My trial-and-error process with electric knives goes back about as far. I started with typical bread-cutting kitchen knives. Some models lasted a couple of hours, others lasted for years.
“My favorite so far is a 110-volt American Angler,” he says. “It has high RPMs, which allow it to cut faster and more efficiently than slower-moving knives.”
Fulgham, meanwhile, favors a battle-scarred Rapala electric. “It’s extremely durable,” he says. “It’s the only knife I’ve found that can handle 10,000 crappies without replacing the blades or the motor. It has a strong, fast motor that zips through skin, scales, and rib cages with ease.”
Electric knives come in corded and cordless options. As you’d expect, corded models must be plugged into an outlet, while cordless models rely on battery power. Both guides recommend corded knives.
“Corded knives typically offer more power and higher RPMs,” McQuoid says. “And unless the power goes out, they never run out of juice.”
While cordless knives can slow down as battery power wanes, they’re easier to maneuver than corded models. Cordless models also offer the flexibility of cleaning fish at remote locations where plug-ins aren’t available. And top cordless models are no slouches in the speed department, either. My favorite fillet knife for decades has been a traditional option from Leech Lake Fillet Knives, but I recently added a Rapala Lithium Ion Cordless Fillet Knife to the stable and it zips through panfish and other gamefish with ease.
Also, corded knives introduce risks into the food-prep process. “Bad things can happen when someone walks into or otherwise catches your knife’s power cord while you’re filleting,” McQuoid says. “That’s why I maintain a clean workspace and keep people away.”
Operator error can also lead to hazards. Cords have a tendency of working themselves around or in front of the blade. Both are bad news, since slicing the cord can have shocking results. To avoid frustrating tangles, reduce the risk of stock, and boost the knife’s maneuverability, experts recommend choosing a swivel cord at least three feet long.
Finding a model with an ergonomic handle that fits the contours of your hand reduces strain and fatigue during marathon cleaning sessions. Also note the on-off switch. Make sure it’s easy to reach when holding the knife, and if it’s a trigger or push-button device, a locking mechanism takes stress off your finger or thumb while cleaning large catches. It’s not a necessity if the switch is easy to squeeze, but a nice touch.
Since the motor’s in the handle, vibration can also be a factor and, in extreme cases, even hurt your hand or wrist. When possible, test the knife before purchasing to assure its level of vibration doesn’t exceed your comfort zone. Proper handle design also allows for ample airflow, which keeps the electric motor running cool and smooth.
“Even the best of knives run hot when you exert too much pressure on them,” McQuoid says. “If your cool-running knife starts getting warm, it could be a sign your blades are dull and need to be sharpened or replaced. A sore wrist is another telltale sign of dull blades.”
Speaking of the sharpening process, both he and Fulgham avoid it. “I wouldn’t even attempt it,” Fulgham says. “The manufacturer has better sharpening machinery than I do, so I simply replace the blades.”
McQuoid agrees. “I don’t mess with sharpening,” he says. “At $17 a set for new blades, it’s more efficient to replace them. And since I can fillet up to around 700 perch per set of blades, they’ve earned their keep.”
Due to the serrated blades, some knife makers don’t recommend sharpening them yourself. Others encourage touching up dull blades with a sharpening rod, so check the owner’s manual.
Along with extra blades, some knives are sold with additional accessories, such as a carving- or fillet-fork to hold the fish while you work. Carrying cases and other storage containers are handy bonuses that make it easy to take the knife on road trips, and also help protect both the blade and fingers when the knife is off duty.
On the safety front, look for knives with some type of lock to prevent the blade from moving accidentally while you’re handling it. My new Rapala Ion, for example, has a push-button safety that keeps the blade on lockdown until I’m ready to use it. Still, it’s smart to unplug corded knives and disconnect a cordless model’s power source before replacing the blades.
Using An Electric Fillet Knife
“Cutting with an electric knife takes getting used to,” McQuoid says. “It’s different than using a traditional fillet knife. The trick is letting the knife do the work. Don’t try to force the blade. Just guide it, letting the motor and blades do the rest. With a standard knife, you draw and push the blade, which is slower and more work. As the blade becomes dull, the process deteriorates into crude and inefficient sawing that wastes meat and time.”
Fulgham’s technique for crappies is simple and effective. “Lay the fish on its side and start right behind the gill plate,” he begins. “Cut down to the backbone and then turn the knife toward the dorsal fin. Follow the backbone through the rib cage down to tail. I leave the skin attached to tail, flip the fillet over and take the skin off."
McQuoid takes a similar tack for perch and walleyes, though he first makes an incision from butt to gills, to simplify removing as much belly meat as possible without manipulating the knife in a manner that would waste precious backstraps.
When he’s ready for the main cut, he carefully slips the blade underneath the perch’s armor-like scales. “Perch scales dull blades fast if you cut straight into them,” he says. “I start my behind-the-gill cut with the blade at a 45-degree angle to the fish, so the blade lifts the scales up and slips under them, rather than sawing down through them.” Like Fulgham, he follows the spine to the tail, cutting through the ribcage in the process.
“Next, remove the ribs and skin, and the fillet is ready to go,” he says. “If you want or are required by law to leave a small piece of skin on the fillet for species identification, stop half an inch before you reach the end of the skin. Move the knife backward about an inch, pull the fillet toward the blade so the skin is snug against the blade, and cut through the skin. This leaves a small tag end, which is easy to grab later on, when you’re ready to remove the remaining skin.”
Knife cleaning is straightforward. “When I’m done, I take the blades apart and wash them well, then put them back on the knife and I’m ready for next time,” Fulgham says. Electric knife handles aren’t waterproof. Submerging them can damage the motor. “Clean the handle by wiping it off with a damp, soapy cloth,” McQuoid says.
Power To The People
When asked who needs an electric knife, both McQuoid and Fulgham say everyone. “I recommend them to any angler,” Fulgham says. “They’re great if you clean large numbers of fish, but make any cleaning job so much easier, I think anyone would appreciate one.”
“Once you get the hang of electric fillet knives, you never go back,” McQuoid says. “I’ve been using them for about 20 years and have no plans to change.”
*Dan Johnson, Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Brandon Fulgham, 662/417-9117; Aaron McQuoid, 701/351-6058.