When you’re preparing a shore lunch on the banks of a backcountry lake or cleaning your latest catch on the kitchen counter, having the right knife makes the process infinitely easier.
While you can butcher a fish with just about any type of cutlery, there is one type of knife that does it more quickly, safely, and efficiently than any other – the fillet knife.
With a thin, flexible, relatively short and narrow blade, a fillet knife offers the perfect blend of control, precision, and maneuverability for easily removing skin, bones, entrails, and fins from fish fillets. Besides meat, fillet knives can also be used on other types of meat, such as poultry and beef. They can also be used for field-dressing big game.
There are corded and cordless electric knives available to meet this need. Generally, corded models are more powerful, have higher RPMs, and never run out of power. In addition, they add additional risks to the process of preparing fish without an outlet.
When you’re working on a fillet, someone can walk into or otherwise catch your knife’s power cord, causing bad things to happen. Cords tend to work themselves around or in front of the blade in a maddening way as well. Both scenarios are bad news, since cutting the cord can lead to shocking outcomes.
If you want the best all-around tool for everything from remote fishing adventures where electricity may not be available to easy and efficient fish cleaning at home, a traditional, manually powered fillet knife is hard to beat.
The blade is one of the most important considerations in the selection of a fillet knife due to its location at the business end. Fillet knives should be thin yet durable, hold a sharp edge, and be the right length for the fish you’re cleaning. Flexibility is also important.
The blade is made of a variety of materials. High-quality stainless steel is the best material when it comes to raw materials, since it won’t tarnish, warp, or corrode – even when handling fish in wet conditions. Gerber’s new Controller knives are made of 9Cr steel, a steel that offers excellent toughness, corrosion resistance, and edge retention. In addition, it’s mirror polished for added protection and easier cleaning.
The blade on the Controller is also “full tang,” which means that it runs the entire length of the handle. The full tang construction enhances feel and balance. Additionally, it increases strength, stability, and control.
You can customize the length and flex of the blade to meet your cleaning needs. You can find filet knives in lengths ranging from 4 to 10 inches, so you can match the blade length with your catch.
Shorter blades are great for smaller fish species such as yellow perch, crappies, and sunfish. For most walleyes and trout, 6-, 7-, and 8-inch blades are ideal, while 9- and 10-inch blades provide the extra length and heft for handling larger fish like broad-shouldered pike, supersized salmon, and various saltwater species.
You can find the right size knife for every cleaning situation if you have two or three fillet knives of different lengths. However, if you want a great length for all-around use – either as your first piece of luggage or when space is limited on trips – 7 inches makes a great choice.
The blade’s flexibility refers to its ability to bend under light pressure, and is typically determined by its thickness and construction. Flexibility is vital when making delicate cuts, such as when skinning a fish or trimming around bones and fins.
On short, thin blades used for smaller fish and precision cuts, a modest amount of flex (the blade bends an inch or so each way when the tip is pressed against a solid surface) is useful. However, knives with thicker blades can still bend, even if they are larger and harder.
If your hand or the knife handle becomes coated in water, blood, or fish slime, choose an ergonomic handle that fits your hand comfortably and allows you to maintain a steady grip even when your hand or the knife handle is covered in water, blood, or fish slime. During extended cleaning sessions, a comfortable handle reduces strain and fatigue, while a firm grip is essential for safety.
You can choose from wood, rubber, plastic, and other materials for the handles. Wood is a traditional choice, but can be slippery when wet. Wood handles are also prone to drying out and cracking, especially when placed in the dishwasher repeatedly. Aside from absorbing unpleasant odors, wood can also be more difficult to clean than plastic or rubber.
Although hard plastic is sturdy, it can also be slippery. Rubber grips are softer and less prone to slippage, but lack the rigidity needed to maintain total control of the knife.
Manufactures often use manmade materials, mixing and matching components to maximize performance. For example, Gerber’s Controllers feature a glass reinforced nylon handle paired with a tactile “HydroTread Grip” that features raised rubber overmolds at strategic points along the handle. To ensure solid thumb placement, Gerber added “GuideFins” to the top of the handle to boost grip and control.
Though often overlooked, the sheath is nevertheless extremely important – as it protects the blade and the people around it during storage and transport.
There are many different kinds of sheaths available, such as leather, nylon, and plastic. While both leather and nylon have their fans, both types can absorb and retain moisture and funk as a result of cleaning chores. An excellent alternative is durable, quick-drying molded plastic. Make sure the sheath has ample ventilation and draining ports.
With a built-in sharpener, you can touch up your blade quickly while you’re cleaning fish, without stopping to track down the nearest whetstone. V-style sharpeners are useful, but full-length honing rods restore the blade’s razor edge quickly and efficiently. Pay attention to the sheath’s mounting options as well. A standard belt loop is included in most sheaths, but clips and loops are convenient for attaching to packs and pockets.
However, not all fillet knives are created equal. You can choose from countless sizes, raw materials, designs, and quality options. Choosing the wrong knife can waste meat, make fish-cleaning a tedious and frustrating task, and increase your risk of cutting yourself during the transition from lake to plate.
Here are a few considerations to speed up your search for the right fillet knife.
Fillet Knife Types
A fillet knife’s first decision is whether to choose a traditional, manually operated model or an electric-powered model. Fillet knives allow precise cuts and extract the most meat from a variety of gamefish, including trout, panfish, catfish, and walleye. The Y-bones on northern pike can also be easily removed with them.
Compared with traditional knives, electric fillet knives are faster and require less effort, but they are also heavier, larger, and generally more expensive. To operate effectively, electric knives require a practiced hand, and they also require power – either a rechargeable battery or a plug-in.
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We also have compiled a guide that will help you choose fillet knives, if you are looking for the best one.