Growing up in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I had many opportunities to fish. In our house the rule was “you catch it, you clean it.” So I learned early how to fillet fish and cook it. The key to filleting is a sharp fillet knife. For one unfamiliar with a fillet knife, it has a long slender blade (7″+) and a solid handle (4″-5″) with a curve near the base of the knife. The knife blade is smooth, not serrated. This is a common knife. One should be able to find this type of knife at a local store that carries kitchen knives or at a sporting goods store in the fishing department. Again, I want to stress the knife needs to be sharp.
The filleting process removes the meat from the fish without the skin or bone. In fact, one doesn’t even need to expose the entrails. There is no scaling or skinning of the fish.
The size of the fish is also a factor. The larger the fish, the easier it is to fillet. Some easier species to fillet include northern pike, walleye pike, trout, bass and salmon. Smaller, bonier fish that are not easily filleted are species such as sunfish, crappie, and blue gill. Please note it is common to serve both walleye pike and trout in a whole body form, with head and tail. Not everyone likes to see the whole fish when dining, so perfecting the filleting skill can be useful and more appetizing.
Let’s look at the process. First pat the fish dry with a paper towel. Lay it out on a cutting board. Starting at the head end, make a cut behind the gills from the spine down to the belly. This cut should also go behind the front fins. Do not sever the head. The cut goes through to the back bone, but does not sever the bone. Next, holding the head securely lay the knife on its side in the cut with the blade edge facing the tail. The knife blade should cover the whole width of the fish. Apply pressure to the blade so it rests on the back bone and rib bones. Begin to fillet the fish by pulling the knife toward the tail. Depending on the sharpness of the knife, you may need to use a short, light sawing action. Stop the cut just before the tail. At this point you should have a nice piece of fish that is still connected at the tail end. Lay this fillet, skin side down, extending from the tail. So, the fish body will be on one side with the fillet opposite of it, still connected at the tail. Now, lay the knife blade on its side firmly at the tail. This cut will remove the skin from the underside of the fillet. Begin to pull the knife toward the end of the fillet, moving away from the tail. Maintain a downward pressure so the meat of the fish can be separated from the skin. This is the first fillet. Next, turn the fish over and repeat the same steps on this side. When completed one will have 2nice fillets.
Warning: Filleting takes a bit of practice. Don’t be discouraged if your first attempt is less than perfect. After a few fish one should be able to perfect the skill and move on to the cooking process.
One of my favorite recipes, especially if I am out camping, is to cook the fish in a foil pouch on the open fire or grill. Lay the fillets on a sheet of foil. Add a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Add a few pieces of sliced onion and lemon. Fold the foil into a sealed pouch. Lay the pouch on the coals or grill for 5 to 7 minutes on each side. The fillets should be white and flaky when finished. Serve it up with your favorite side dish. Bon appetite!