Catching fish is a blast, but unless you only Catch-and-Release, you will need to be able to prepare your catch for the table. This entails knowing how to properly dress a fish for the various cooking methods available.
Each method has advantages for particular types of cooking and serving. But one thing they have in common is that you will need a good fillet knife to do a professional-looking job on your piscatorial prizes.
And it can be a bit daunting finding the right fillet knife due to a myriad of choices. There are many things to consider, including personal preferences.
After 30+ years working as a chef, here’s the complete guide to choosing the best fillet knife…
- 1 5 Ways To Prepare Fish
- 2 Making The Cut: What Makes The Best Fillet Knife?
- 3 30+ Years As A Chef – My 3 Best Fillet Knives Picks
- 4 Conclusion: Make YOUR Knife Choice!
5 Ways To Prepare Fish
There are 5 standard ways to render fresh fish into a cookable condition.
Some of the ways can be accomplished (sort of) with pocket knives, boning knives, and even an Ulu (I have used all of these at times). For filleting, finding the right fillet knife is critical.
No one wants fillets that look like they’ve already been chewed on. And you don’t want to waste any more meat than is necessary.
The 5 ways to properly prepare fish for cooking are:
1. Whole Fish
This is the way many fish are sold at seaside fish markets, where the fish come directly off the boat. The fish has just been kept cold, and not prepared in any way.
It is just like it came out of the water, save for being dead and cold. It has the advantage of allowing the cook to finish preparing the fish any way they want.
2. Dressed Fish
Dressed fish have been scaled and had the entrails removed. The head and fins are left intact. These are ready to cook as-is. A fish can be dressed with a pocket knife, or a boning knife if needed.
But finding the right fillet knife makes this easier and quicker. This is a popular way to fry smaller fish like bluegills. Several slits are made in the sides to let hot oil in and they are fried crispy, so they can be eaten bones and all.
3. Pan-Dressed Fish
These have had the entrails, fins, and head removed, and have been scaled. Very popular for fish that are to be grilled outside. Also great for poaching and broiling.
4. Fish Steaks
Best done with large deep-bodied fish like catfish and large salmon. It is especially good for fish that are to be cooked on the BBQ grill. The fish is pan-dressed, then cross-cut into 2” thick steaks. The skin and bones hold the delicate meat together while it is cooking.
No scaling or gutting is necessary. The meat is removed from the bones by carefully slicing along the backbone and ribs until the meat can be totally freed from the body.
Then, the knife is very carefully run between the skin and meat, freeing the meat from the skin.
Then it is repeated for the other side. You get two boneless, skinless fillets. For fish with bloodlines and ‘Y’ bones, such as carp and pike, the bloodline is carefully sliced out, and delicate cuts are made above and below the ‘Y’ bones and they are removed and discarded.
Making The Cut: What Makes The Best Fillet Knife?
Now that you have a working knowledge of the different ways fish can be prepared, it is easy to see why finding the best fillet knife is so important.
You will have to be able to make very delicate and precise cuts, very difficult to do with regular knives.
So, what makes a fillet knife different than other knives? There are Five things that set them apart:
1. Blade Material
You will have to sharpen your knife a lot while filleting fish because there is no way to dress a fish without cutting through some scales (unless the fish has no scales, like catfish and eels…).
Scales are hard and tough on knife blades, but your knife must be very sharp to be able to make the required precise slices.
The blade material needs to be easy to sharpen with modest equipment.
You might think that this would indicate High Carbon steel, like Carbon V, but your fillet knife will be exposed to wet conditions, blood, and maybe even saltwater, all of which are very corrosive.
You really need a stainless steel blade, but the high-end steels like D-2 are much too hard and difficult to sharpen quickly in the field. Good choices are 420j, or 420c, 3CR13, 3CR14, VG-1, etc…
These are a little softer but tougher than 440C, and more common knife steels. They can be re-sharpened with just a few strokes on a pocket sharpener like a Smith or Accusharp.
2. Blade Flexibility
In order to make precise and clean cuts at weird angles, the blade has to be able to flex some from side to side. This is another reason for finding the best fillet knife.
The blade has to be thin enough to flex, and the steel has to be soft enough to flex laterally, in other words, not brittle. Using a knife that will not flex for anything other than dressing or pan-dressing a fish will result in wasted meat, and ugly fillets.
To check a knife’s flexibility, place the point against something and place your hand on the end of the pommel.
The blade should flex at least ½” just from the weight of your hand.
Wood is the traditional scale material, and it is beautiful. I have a Rapala fillet knife that I’ve had since I was a teenager (over 5 decades ago…) that I still love, and use occasionally.
But it is just for sentimental reasons. In reality, wood is a horrible material for a fillet knife.
Your hands and the scales will be covered in blood and slime, and the wood will become slippery and hard to keep from twisting in your hand, This will ruin a fillet. Also, wood will pick up unpleasant odors and it is difficult to keep clean.
I also have a folding Opinel fillet knife that does a good job, but still has the same problems as the Rapala. Most polymers, such as G2, Grivory, Gripex, and such will also get slippery but are easy to keep clean.
The exception is Micarta. It is smooth, but when it gets wet, it becomes almost sticky…a good feature in a fillet knife. The best grips are rubberized, so you will have a firm grip even when slimy.
4. Blade Shape
Blade shape is not really an issue.
All fillet knives have trail point blades, just like skinners.
Trail points are needed for making precise and delicate cuts, just like for skinning any other animal.
5. Knife Size
Blade size depends on what size fish you will be dealing with. Standard sizes are 4”, 6”, and 8”.
If you know for certain that you will only be bringing home panfish to eat, then a 4” blade would be fine. If you like to eat trout, white bass, medium-sized catfish, small carp, pike, large black bass, etc…, then you will definitely need a 6” blade.
For anything larger, like big catfish, striped bass, salmon, steelheads, big carp, etc…, you will want an 8” blade, and if you like saltwater fish, monster catfish, etc…,10” and 12” blades are not unreasonable.
If you can only have one knife for some reason, then I recommend a 6” blade.
It is the best compromise. But there is no law that says you can only have one knife, and fillet knives are modestly priced compared to other knives. I would recommend having a few different sizes.
What About Electric Fillet Knives?
A word about electric knives. Some people like them, and they are fast, but they always mangle the fish and result in a lot of wasted meat.
They are heavy, unwieldy, and require some source of power, either batteries or an electric outlet. A lot of extra concerns and things to carry that you don’t really need.
I do not recommend electric fillet knives. I regard them as a gimmick to get people’s money.
Do I Need A Sheath?
The last concern is the sheath.
You do not want leather or nylon because it will hold moisture and cause your knife to rust… yes, even stainless steel. Polymer sheaths are the best, but be sure they have drain holes to allow water to drain through.
30+ Years As A Chef – My 3 Best Fillet Knives Picks
Brand names and prices are not really an indicator that a particular fillet knife is right for you.
There are many steps to finding the right fillet knife, and one of them is Trial-And-Error. You may go through a lot of knives before you find the right ones for you. It’s OK. We’ve all done it.
Fortunately, it is easy to trade knives with others, and eventually, everyone gets what they want.
In my opinion, here are some of the Best Fillet Knives you can buy
1. Rapala Soft Grip with Sharpener
This is identical to my beloved and very aged wooden-handled Rapala from the 1960s, except is has a wonderful rubberized grip, and the sheath has a built-in sharpener.
Holds a razor-sharp edge, sharpens with a few swipes, and has just the right amount of flex.
Comes in several sizes from 4” to 9”. At around $15.00 (US), it’s hard to beat. The picture is a painting I did of my Rapala Soft Grip. Its name is Riptide…
2. Martini #19
Another great fillet knife.
I got mine when I was 3rd Mate on a fishing boat in the mid-1970s. 3rd Mate is the low man on the Totem Pole, and I got all the great jobs no one else wanted to do, like filleting all of the customers fish on the way back into port. I had to be fast but do a professional job.
This knife was recommended to me by the former 3rd Mate, who got promoted to 2nd Mate.
It still serves me well and definitely does the job.
The blade has just the right flex, and the rubber handle is secure and comfortable, even after 100 fish. It has a great plastic sheath.
It only comes in one size, 7-½”, but this is the perfect all-around size for a fillet knife. I think now they are still under $25.00 US. BTW, the picture is of my actual knife and sheath…Over 40 years of hard use and still good as new. Its name is Scupper…
3. Mora #M-11892
In my opinion, possibly the best fillet knife at any price.
Mora is one of the Top 5 greatest knife manufacturers in the world. No one, but no one makes a blade as sharp as a Mora. I have several, and every one of them is scary-sharp with just a few swipes on any stone or stick. Like all other Moras, the fillet knife has a Scandi-Grind, so you can’t sharpen it with a regular sharpener.
But it’s no problem to use a Diamond or Carbide stick or a flat stone to bring it back to nightmare sharpness with a few swipes. Just lay the stick or stone flat against the bevel and draw it a few times. That’s it. This knife has Mora’s excellent Sandvik 12C27 Stainless steel that has just the right amount of flex, is tough, and is as sharp as glass.
It comes with a great plastic sheath with several mounting options. The scales are nice and grippy, with no slip at all, and is very ergonomic. I’ve had mine for 22 years
This is my go-to fillet knife.
The blade on mine is around 6”, but they also make one with a 3-½” blade. At under $25.00 US, this knife cannot be beaten. You just cannot lose with any Mora Knife. The picture is my actual Mora. Its name is Slash…
Conclusion: Make YOUR Knife Choice!
There are many other great fillet knives made by Buck, Fiskars, Forschner, Kershaw, etc…
Experiment until you find the right fillet knife to suit your needs.
If you know someone with a good knife, ask them to borrow it to fillet some fish in exchange for a few fillets. Your fellow anglers can be a great help in finding the right fillet knife for you.