Cleaning fish with care and precision is a skill born of knowledge and practice. The product you bring to the kitchen affects what appears on the table. A one-pound walleye carefully filleted produces two fillets each weighing about 4 ounces. Lack of precision might reduce those fillets to 3.5 ounces each, a waste.
The tools needed to clean fish successfully depend on the chosen cleaning method. The skillful fish cleaner knows a variety of methods and uses them depending on the chosen recipe.
At the cleaning station should be at least one knife and perhaps several; a fish-dispatching dowel; a bowl of fresh water and ice; and towels to keep the station clean. A sharpening stone and steel should be kept handy too, in case needed. A scaling tool should be on hand, as well as a fish skinner. Many anglers prefer to use an electric knife to fillet fish. We prefer traditional knives but would use an electric knife if the cleaning detail were particularly large.
Berkley Deluxe Electric Fillet Knife
- Electric fillet knives are fine if you can find a power source. Berkley eases the challenge by offering an 18-foot cord, along with attachments to draw juice from an auto outlet, 12-volt battery, or 110-volt wall outlet. About the only thing that won't work is a currant bush. Other handy features include interchangeable 6- and 8-inch, stainless steel blades, which are easy to swap out for tackling fish of different sizes. The knife also offers upgrades over older models, including a user-friendly, ergonomic design, enhanced cutting performance, and rear venting to better dissipate heat. Comes with an EVA carrying case to help you keep it all together.
Cabela's D-2 Fillet Elk Stick Knife
- The World's Foremost Outfitter pairs a 7-inch, high-carbon D2 steel blade with naturally shed antlers of North American deer, elk, and moose to create this instant classic. It's handmade in the Pacific Northwest, heat-treated to a 62 Rockwell hardness rating, and guaranteed to hold an edge through the most grueling cleaning marathons. Plus, it turns heads at the cleaning shack faster than a limit of crappies during a cold front.
Clam Filet Knife
- The folks fueling the Ice Fishing Revolution bring us this dandy 6-inch blade. Crafted of stainless steel for enhanced performance, it offers increased edge retention for more filleting between trips to the whetstone. We like the looks and feel of the laminated hardwood handle, which, thanks to its full-tang composition, cradles the blade throughout its length for added durability. Comes with a custom leather sheath. Overall, a fine choice typically retailing for less than $15, tax included.
Knives of Alaska Steelheader
- Inspired by — and designed to conquer — the rugged conditions of the Last Frontier, the Steelheader's blade is forged from high-carbon, 440-C stainless steel that registers 58-60 on the Rockwell Hardness Scale and holds an edge longer than most. At 5¾-inches, it shines for small to mid-sized fish — though it's tough enough for bigger jobs, including boning and big game processing. The stoic little knife also features full-tang, riveted construction, and the sturdy Suregrip handle is a joy to hold.
Mister Twister Electric Fisherman Fillet Knife
- Electric knives carve catches with ease, and this little number is a fine option for under $40. Besides a price point that won't break the bank, it offers must-have features in electric knives, including a sharp blade, speedy cutting cycles, and plenty of power to slice and dice. Plus, it's lightweight. Coupled with a comfortable handle, it takes the pain out of processing big numbers of fish. The heavy-duty motor and high-impact housing boost longevity, while a fast-action blade release adds convenience.
Offshore Angler Breaking Fillet Knife
- Offshore recently expanded its lineup of affordable yet high-quality cutlery, and the company's breaking option is a breakout choice for making the initial cuts when processing large fish such as salmon. For less than $11, you get features including a high-carbon 420 stainless steel breaking blade that's stiff enough for heavy-duty butchering, and scores a respectable 52 rating on the Rockwell Hardness Scale. As a plus, the soft, easy-to-hold handle helps you keep a grip on the knife when carving up hefty catches.
Rapala Marttiini Salmon Rosewood Fillet Knife
- Generations of anglers have relied on the premium fillet knives Marttinni crafts for Rapala, and this collectible yet field-ready blade does the tradition justice. Featuring the mighty salmon Kojamo from Finnish folklore, the waxed rosewood handle is cool enough to silence any critics at the fish-cleaning shack all by itself. And the 7½-inch blade is no slouch, either. Stainless, sharp, and flexible, it makes quick and clean work of prized fillets. Sold with a leather sheath and wooden heirloom gift box. Trust us, though, this beauty's too fine to hide away on a shelf.
Victorinox 8-inch Flexible Fillet Knife
- If you like Swiss Army knives, you'll love the company's filleting options. The Swiss-made, stainless steel blade is nicely flexible for a variety of fine cuts, while the Fibrox handle is designed for sure and easy holding, which is further bolstered by its textured, slip-resistant grip. Sold with a riveted leather sheath that features a built-in blade protector. As with all Victorinox cutlery, the knife carries a lifetime warranty against defects in material or workmanship.
Williamson Slim Fillet Knife
- A longtime player on the saltwater tackle scene, Williamson recently expanded its portfolio with a trio of fine fillet knives. The entire lineup merits serious consideration for a variety of fish-cleaning applications, but we picked the Slim Fillet Knife for this roundup because its razor-sharp, 8-inch blade wields just the right flex to tackle precision cuts and other detail work. It packs a prodigious pedigree as well, being manufactured by Marttiini, the company responsible for producing Rapala's renowned fillet knives since 1928. Like all Williamson fillet knives, it features a co-molded handle designed for a comfortable, relaxed grip that furthers fatigue-free filleting. Plus, the European stainless steel blade boasts a progressive taper with mirror-polished finish that takes and holds an ultra-sharp edge. Priced under $35, it's a steal.
Wusthof Ikon Blackwood Flexible Fillet Knife
- A product of Wustohof's 200 years and seven generations of experience transforming German steel into world-class cutlery, this knife is one smooth operator. Yes, it retails for $225. But it's a true jewel built for decades of service — and smart shoppers find it for far less. Forged from a single shard of specially tempered high-carbon steel, the 6-inch blade is thin, flexible, and amazingly sharp — the ideal combination for creating flawless fillets from everything from perch to walleyes. Balanced perfectly with the blade, the contoured handle is carved from African Blackwood (one of the world's hardest timbers) for sublime control. Add triple-riveted, full-tang construction and a lifetime warranty, and even skeptics will cry wunderbar.
Using a Knife
Knives are built to function like the muscles in your body. Muscular movement begins with larger muscles and progresses to smaller muscles or muscle groups. A hook-set while fishing, for example, begins with the large leg, butt, and back muscles. Then in rapid succession, smaller shoulder and upper arm muscles work and quickly pass the action to the small muscles in the lower arm, hand, and fingers.
Bigger muscles start the work; finer muscles finish it. Larger muscles are for larger, coarser tasks; finer muscles are for smaller, finer tasks. So it is with the design and use of a knife. The thicker butt is designed to handle coarse work, while the finer tip is for finishing work.
Fillet knives should have a heavier butt, tapering progressively into a small point. Fillet knives that taper less progressively are designed for heavier fillet work.
At the cleaning table, cleanliness is important. Have ice available for fish that have already been cleaned and to chill fillets from fish still alive when they reach the cleaning table. To fillet our catch, we need:
- Cleaning utensils, including fillet knives and sharpening tools; a fish-dispatching dowel; and a bowl of cold water (add ice) to soak fillets for a short time to remove blood and bacteria.
- Clean paper towels for wiping slime from fish and keeping the fillet board clean. Pat fillets dry after they've soaked if you don't plan to freeze them.
Cleaning Fish Procedure
(1) If fish are alive, they should dispatched them with a sharp blow to the head with the dowel, just behind the eyes. The dowel is a 15-inch length of one-inch dowel or the handle from a hammer—available in hardware stores.
(2) Remove the fillets. Although it's often difficult and not critical, try not to rupture the digestive tract with your knife.
(3) Place fillets in cold water to help remove blood and bacteria. With lean fish such as catfish, pike, or walleyes, an option is to add 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
(4) Discard the carcass, wipe the board and knife clean, and start on another fish. Replace the water in the bowl when it begins to thicken with fish juices.