Whether you're fixing shore lunch on the banks of a backcountry lake or cleaning your latest limit on the kitchen counter at home, having the right knife for the job makes transforming your catch into fine table-fare infinitely easier.
While you can butcher a fish with just about any kind of cutlery, one type of knife does it more quickly, safely, and efficiently than any other — the fillet knife.
Appropriately named, a fillet knife features a thin, flexible, relatively short and narrow blade that offers the perfect blend of control, precision, and maneuverability for easily removing skin, bones, entrails, and fins from a fish fillet. Fillet knives may also be used on other types of meat such as poultry and beef, and are also handy for field-dressing big game.
Not all fillet knives are created equal, however. There are literally countless options available in size, raw materials, design, and quality. It's important to choose with care, because the wrong knife can waste precious meat, make fish-cleaning duties a slow and frustrating process, and increase your risk of cutting yourself while transitioning your catch from lake to plate.
To speed your search for the right fillet knife, we offer the following points to consider.
Type of Fillet Knife
Your first decision when selecting a fillet knife is whether to choose a traditional, manually operated model or an electric-powered knife. Traditional fillet knives allow precise cuts and excel at extracting the maximum amount of meat from a variety of gamefish, including trout, panfish, catfish, and walleyes. They're also great choices for removing the dreaded Y-bones from northern pike.
Electric fillet knives tend to be faster and require less effort than traditional options, but they are also larger, heavier, and often considerably more expensive than traditional knives. Plus, electric knives require a practiced hand to operate efficiently and, of course, they also need a power source — either from a rechargeable battery or a plug-in.
Toward that end, electric knives come in corded and cordless options. Corded models tend to offer more power, higher RPMs, and never run out of juice. But they're useless without an outlet, and introduce added risks to the fish-prep process.
For example, bad things can happen if someone walks into or otherwise catches your knife's power cord while you're working on a fillet. Likewise, cords have a maddening tendency of working themselves around or in front of the blade. Both situations are bad news, since cutting the cord can have shocking results.
Bottom line, if you're looking for the best all-around choice for everything from remote fishing adventures where electricity isn't available to easy and efficient fish cleaning closer to home, a traditional, manually powered fillet knife is hard to beat.
Thanks to its location at the business end of a fillet knife, the blade is one of the most critical considerations in the knife selection process. Always look for a fillet knife blade that's thin yet durable, holds a sharp edge, and is the right length for the fish you're cleaning. The right amount of flex is also important.
Let's start with what the blade's made of. When it comes to raw materials, the best choice, hands down, is high-quality stainless steel that won't tarnish, warp, or corrode — even in the wet conditions common when handling fish. The 9Cr steel on Gerber's new Controller knives is a great example, as it offers an excellent blend of toughness, corrosion resistance, and edge retention. Plus, it's also mirror polished for added protection and easier clean-up.
The Controller blade is also "full tang," which means the blade runs the entire length of the handle. Full tang construction enhances feel and balance. It also increases strength, stability, and control.
Tailor the blade's length and flex to fit your cleaning needs. Fillet knives are commonly offered in lengths from 4 to 10 inches, allowing you to match blade length to the size of your catch.
Blades on the shorter end of the spectrum are great for smaller fish species such as yellow perch, crappies, and sunfish. Six-, 7-, and 8-inch lengths work well for eater-sized walleyes and trout, while 9- and 10-inch blades provide the extra length and heft to handle bigger fish like broad-shouldered pike, supersize salmon and various saltwater species.
Having two or three fillet knives of differing lengths will help you find the perfect size for a specific cleaning situation. However, if you're looking for the best all-around length for a variety of duties — either as a first purchase or when packing space is limited on trips — 7 inches is a great option.
Flex refers to the blade's ability to bend under light pressure, and is typically determined by its thickness and construction. Flex is especially important for making delicate cuts, such as when following contours while skinning the fish or trimming around bones and fins.
A modest amount of flex (the blade flexes around an inch or so each way when you press the tip against a solid surface) is nice on short, thin blades used for smaller fish and making precision cuts. Larger knives with thicker blades may have less flex, but the ability to bend is still important.
Choose an ergonomic handle that comfortably fits your hand and allows you to control the blade while maintaining a firm grip on the knife, even when your hand or the knife handle becomes covered in water, blood, or fish slime. A comfortable handle reduces strain and fatigue during extended cleaning sessions, while a sure grip is paramount to safety.
Handle materials include wood and a variety of plastic and rubber options. Wood is a traditional choice but can become slippery when wet. Wood handles are also prone to drying out and cracking, especially when subjected to multiple trips to the dishwasher. Wood is also notorious for soaking up unpleasant odors and can be more difficult to clean than plastic or rubber.
Hard plastic is sturdy, but can also get slippery. Softer, rubber grips are less prone to slippage, but can lack the rigidity needed for maintaining total control over the knife.
Some manufacturers tender the tradeoffs of manmade materials, mixing and matching components to maximize performance. The handle on Gerber's Controllers, for example, is made of strong and durable glass-reinforced nylon, coupled with a tactile, "HydroTread Grip" that features a raised, rubberized overmold at strategic points along the handle. Further boosting grip and control, Gerber added "GuideFins" to the top of the handle to ensure solid thumb placement.
Often overlooked, the sheath is nevertheless an extremely important consideration — as it protects the blade and the people around it during knife storage and transport.
Sheaths are available in a variety of materials, including leather, nylon, and plastic. Leather and nylon have their fans, but both types can soak up and retain moisture and funk from cleaning chores. In contrast, durable, quick-drying molded plastic is a great choice. Look for sheaths with ample ventilation and draining ports.
A built-in sharpener is always nice, as it allows quick blade touch-ups while you're cleaning fish, without taking a break to track down the nearest whetstone. Small V-style sharpeners are helpful, but full-length honing rods let you quickly and completely restore the blade's razor edge. Also pay attention to the sheath's mounting options. Most sheaths offer a standard belt loop, but clips and loops for attachment to packs and pockets are a handy plus.