Temagami Stewardship Council
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Cooking Tips

It's been a great day of perch fishing and the formidable task of cleaning fish is still ahead of you. At such times many of us wish we could fillet fish like the pros. Those who do it for a living have the experience of more fish behind them than most of us will ever catch. Their techniques and tips can help us all be more efficient and faster. One task many of us wish we could do better is fillet pike or muskie, with their dreaded Y bones. Again, the advice of experts can make this relatively simple. We sought out a range of pros. Here are their tips and tactics.

To start, of course, you need the right equipment to do a good job. The basic tool is a good fillet knife. There are different preferences, besides brand name, although Normark/Rapala knives, being readily available in Ontario and reasonably priced, are popular.

Paul Powis, of J & P Charters, gained his expertise by filleting walleye. He likes the soft-grip-handle version of the Rapala knife in 7 1/2 or 9 inches. Powis also uses a Kevlar glove. "It's a safety thing and it helps you grip the fish," he said.

Chef Allan Conroy, who goes through the steps of cleaning trout or salmon, likes a Rapala knife for small trout. "The blade is so flexible and thin," he explained. For larger fish, he likes any good-quality knife with a stiff blade to enable him to go along the backbone more easily. Ron DeSerranno, a Long Point pike enthusiast and owner of Rotten Ronnie's tackle shop, uses a 6-inch Rapala knife to fillet pike.
Tim Martin, a third-generation commercial fisherman and owner of a fish retail outlet at Lake Erie's Port Burwell can fillet a perch butterfly style in about 10 seconds.. He likes the stiff blade of a Dexter-Russell 8-inch knife for most of his filleting. He uses a larger Victorinox 12-incher for skinning fish. These knives are available from restaurant-supply stores.

He also advises wearing at least a knitted nylon glove on the hand used to hold fish. It isn't intended for protection, as are the cut-proof styles, but to simply give a better grip on the fish. Another of his tips for skinning a fillet is to use the tip of a scaler or other sharp object to hold the fish. An option is a fish-cleaning board with a clip that holds the tail of the fish. They're available in most tackle stores.

Ensuring fillets are boneless is a matter of pride for Martin. He suggested examining the skeleton to ensure all rib bones are intact. If any are missing, the ribs must be in the fillet, so it's time for extra trimming. He also advises running your fingers over the fillet in the portion likely to hold bones to feel if any are still in the meat.

The bottom line on fillet knives? To each his own, but the word "sharp," with one exception, was always emphasized by the pros. Lake Nippising charterboat skipper and ice-hut operator Rob Hyatt, who often fillets fish for customers, said, "For the actual skinning part, a duller knife is better than a sharp knife, which tends to cut through the skin if you put on too much pressure."

To better fillet fish off the bones, an understanding of a fish's skeletal structure helps. Ontario's sport fish are divided into five basic families: trout (Salmonidae); Pacific salmon (Oncorhycus); perch and walleye (Percidae); the sunfish family (Centrarchidae), which includes bass, sunfish, and crappie; and muskie and pike (Esox).

Looking more in depth at the skeletal system of each type of fish reveals the obstacles to filleting. These are the main ribs and secondary ribs or hemal bones, sometimes called pin bones. In all fish except muskie and pike, the secondary ribs are a single line above the rib cage. The difference between the families is how far these bones are from the main ribs and how long they are. In muskie and pike, the secondary ribs appear as Y bones, a real pain to work around. With practice, you can turn out perfect fillets too. Enjoy the taste of fresh Ontario fish, without worrying about bones. Now, let's get started.

All these species have a similar simple bone structure, with a small line of short secondary ribs along the top of the main ribs. Master filleting walleye, and preparing the rest of these fish should come easy, although the rounder shapes of the bass-sunfish family take a bit more care to follow the rib cage with the knife.

Paul Powis fishes on both Lakes Huron and Erie. He's filleted thousands of fish for charterboat customers over the years and has cleaning walleye down to an art. It takes him a minute, two tops, to do a fish. He's shared his expertise on fish filleting with countless anglers through Spring Fishing Show seminars for Ontario Out of Doors. Here's his method.

1) Cut on a diagonal down to the backbone behind the front fins where flesh and head meet. Turn the fish over and execute the same cut, but starting from the bottom up.

2) Turn the fish again and cut in along that side of the backbone about one inch deep until the knife reaches the top of the rib cage.

3) At the end of the ribs, push the knife, keeping it flat against the backbone, all the way through to the underside of the fish and then slide it back to the tail. Flip the fish and repeat.

4) Using a sweeping motion with the knife, go along and down the main ribs, pulling back the fillet as you go. Repeat on the other side.

5) Lift the fillets and cut free from the carcass on both sides. Separate fillets.

6) Skin fillets. Starting at the tail end, hold the knife at a slight forward angle tight to the skin and work forward in a sawing motion. Be careful not to cut through the skin. (If you find you constantly cut through the skin, one tip is to hold the knife almost still and pull and wiggle the skin from side to side, as you draw the fillet towards you.)

7) Starting at the back of a skinless fillet, make a small cut in about two inches on each side of the lateral line, leaving the pin bones in the middle piece. Pull on one side, then the other, separating the boneless meat from the piece with bones. This should be an action similar to opening a zipper.

OOD's Managing Editor John Kerr follows the same basic procedure as Powis, but he doesn't cut through the secondary ribs at step 4. Instead, he turns the knife parallel to them and works it over and down to the main ribs, from which the fillet is then removed in one piece. The secondary ribs stay on the skeleton with the main ribs. "It's slower than Paul's method, but accomplishes the same thing - a boneless fillet. I do perch, crappie, and bass this way too," he said. "It takes a slow, careful hand, though, to prevent leaving pin bones in a fillet. That's why many pros like Paul prefer to remove them more quickly from walleye at a later stage of the process. Smaller fish like perch, though, are easy to fillet over their short secondary ribs."

8) Smart anglers also remove the delectable cheeks of walleye. Following the edge of the cheek bone depression with the knife tip, make a reverse C from the top or bottom of the fish cheek. Stick your thumb under the meat and pull back to expose the tendon behind the eye. Cut it and pull the meat to remove it from the skin. Tasty tidbit! Save up a batch for a superb feed. Saute like scallops.

Filleting Walleye
By Paul Powis, of J & P Charters, from the Spring Fishing Show 2005.

(Click on Play Arrow to View Clip)
Size: 4.5 M

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Caribbean Walleye

Size: 300 K


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How to fillet fish like the pros

From Ontario OUT OF DOORS magazine - February 2005

Size: 2.1 M


Although trout and salmon are in separate families, their skeletal setup is the same. Removing the pin bones, which are longer than those of fish covered so far, takes a little different approach when filleting. There are several other popular ways to clean these fish. Gutting and cutting off the head to freeze the fish whole works well if you will be frying (small trout), baking, barbecuing, or smoking it. You can also cut large trout and salmon into steaks for grilling. When preparing boneless fillets, keep in mind that the flesh of trout and salmon is often softer than other fish. Work with ice-cold fish, if possible.

Allan Conroy learned his fish-cleaning skills at the culinary-arts programme at Vancouver Community College. Among the restaurants he's worked at are two in British Columbia that specialized in fish, with The Fish House in Stanley Park being the most notable. He now runs his own business, Allan Conroy Catering in Tillsonburg, Ontario. Besides dealing with fish as part of his job, he loves fishing for trout and salmon. Conroy uses a paper towel to help grip fish. Here's how he fillets trout and salmon.

1) Cut along the stomach and remove the innards. Conroy does this because the rib cage on small trout and salmon is so fine, accidentally cutting through into the body cavity and contaminating the meat is a possibility.

2) Cut under the pectoral fin on an angle up to the crown of the head and down to the backbone. Turn the fish over and repeat. Cut all the way through and remove the head.

3) Cut along the side of the backbone, following the spine and slicing through the ribs. Continue along the entire length of the fish. Remove the fillet. Repeat on the other side.

4) Trim out the ribs by using a smaller knife. An alternative is to cut around them in step three, as Powis does with walleye. Conroy prefers to do it after cutting the fillets off because seeing what you're doing is easier then.

5) Rub your fingers over the fillet to find the pin bones above where the main ribs were. Grab each pin bone with a pair of needle-nosed pliers and pull to remove. Repeat until all the bones are removed from each fillet. An alternative is to again cut along each side of the bones and pull out the section of meat containing them. This, however, leaves a deep cut in trout and salmon. Conroy's method, while taking longer, leaves an intact, uniform-thickness fillet.

6) Skin each fillet, as previously covered. Note. Some anglers prefer to leave the fine-scaled skin on small trout and salmon.

For Great Lakes salmon and trout where contaminants or a strong fishy taste from eating smelt or alewife are a concern, many anglers not only cut off the fatty belly meat, they also remove the darker lateral-line muscle from the outside of each fillet. Use the tip of the knife and make shallow cuts along each side of and under the dark meat. Toxins are more of a concern with larger fish. The government Guide To Eating Ontario Sport Fish gives toxicity test results for different-sized fish in each species for many lakes in Ontario. It's available free from the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Natural Resources.

View clip
Filleting Trout
With Burt Myers, from the Spring Fishing Show 2005.


The Y bones in pike and muskie have been known to turn meat fishermen into catch-and-release anglers. There are, however, several methods of filleting these fish to end up with boneless meat.

Ron DeSerranno uses the following method, which results in minimal meat loss.

1) Cut fish on an angle behind the head in front of the pectoral fin, stopping when you hit the backbone. Turn fish over and repeat.

2) Starting at the front, cut along the backbone and stop when you contact Y bones. When the knife reaches the anus, push it all the way through the fish to the bottom and continue cutting to the tail, as with other fish. Start at the front again and cut through the Y bones. Stop at the main ribs and then cut around them to remove fillet. Turn over and repeat with other fillet.

3) Skin fillets.

4) Cut the back section of each fillet in line where the anus was. This piece is boneless. Cut remainder of fillets in 4-inch sections for bone removal.
1) Above the lateral line on each section, you should be able to feel tips of the Y bones with your finger. Cut down vertically on the top side of the bones until you feel the knife hit them.

2) Then, turn the knife on a 45-degree angle and cut through the piece of meat.

3) Go to the other side of the lateral line and cut halfway through the meat on that side of the Y bones, then turn the knife on an angle to cut along the bone and through the meat.

4) The result is three pieces of meat, with the middle one having the Y bones. Discard it. Repeat this with remaining sections.

View clip
Filleting Pike
With John Kerr, of Ontario OUT OF DOORS magazine, from the Spring Fishing Show 2005.

Butterflied perch
Some fish connoisseurs believe the only way to eat perch is with the skin on. It adds flavour. Producing butterflied fillets, with the skin on, is the traditional method of preparing perch by Lake Erie commercial fisherman Tim Martin. He shared how to do this.

Start by scaling the perch. Metal scalers available at most fishing-tackle stores do the trick. Scale fish from tail to head. Martin said gadgets some people use, such as homemade attachments on a drill, are also fine for removing scales.

Next, remove the head. Start at the bottom and cut around the pelvic fin to keep it on the head. Continue cutting on an angle around top of head. The finished cut should be rounded to follow the line of the head and retain as much meat as possible on the fish.

With the fish's belly facing left (assuming the cleaner is right handed), start at the front end and cut in with the knife travelling along the dorsal fin until the knife tip hits the ribs. Then guide the knife along rib edge.

When the rib cage ends, push the knife from the top of the fish to the bottom and guide it along the backbone to the tail. Go back to front of fish and cut around rib cage.

Flip fish over and, starting at the tail, slide the knife up and along the ribs to the front, but don't cut all the way through anywhere along the fish. Returning to the back of the rib cage, cut through from the back of it towards the tail. Then cut around the ribs. The skin at the front of the stomach should still be connected when finished, and can be separated later. Get the edge

Keep your knife sharp. An oilstone is the traditional tool for this, but there are many gadgets claimed to give a perfect edge. I turned to London, Ontario, knife maker Joe Arnold to help me sort through them and for advice on sharpening.

Firstly, to determine if a knife is sharp or dull, he says to see if it will catch the glint of light. If light reflects off the edge of the blade, it's dull. If there's no glint, it's sharp.

Besides making a variety of custom knives, Arnold sharpens knives for customers. He starts with a belt sander with 222 grit until he has a wire edge on the knife. He then uses a leather strop with polishing compound to knock off the wire edge and make a tougher edge. "If you don't take the wire edge off, it will come off when you use the knife," he said.

To sharpen your own knives, Arnold recommends starting with an oilstone - the longer, the better. He uses dish soap as a lubricant. Holding the knife at a 10- to 15-degree angle, push the knife along the stone as if cutting into it. Arnold says not to draw the knife backwards or use a circular motion. Usually, six to ten strokes is enough for each side of the blade, with the idea being to stop once the knife has a wire edge. Again, use a leather strop to take off the wire edge.

One of the biggest problems Arnold has seen with people using oilstones is not cleaning them after use. The stone picks up small pieces of metal and particles off the stone are loosened through the sharpening process. Dish soap and a plastic pot scrubber are ideal for cleaning a stone, he says.

Arnold doesn't like steels, saying using one creates a ragged edge. Diamond impregnated steels are fine, though. He says some sharpening gadgets work well, mentioning Lansky sharpeners and ceramic sharpeners. He keeps a Scotty sharpener in his tackle box to touch up his knife while fishing.

Our expert fish cleaners use a wide variety of devices. Tim Martin and Allan Conroy have their knives sharpened occasionally by a sharpening service or local butcher shop and then touch them up with a steel. Conroy prefers a Henkel steel, while Martin likes a Diamond brand. Powis uses a Scotty sharpener for his knives and finishes them off with a Rapala ceramic sharpener.

The electric edge
An electric fillet knife is a newer option for cleaning fish. Models include those distributed by Normark under the Rapala and Storm brands, plus American Angler and Angler's Best. They range from rechargeables to 120-volt and 12-volt DC plug-ins or combinations.

Nor mark says electric knives are increasing in popularity. "I wouldn't say we're selling as many as regular fillet knives, but a number of people are switching," said Tom McMurray, advertising manager for Normark.

"You can cut through bones quite easily. They have a serrated blade and don't seem to dull as easily."

Paul Powis often uses a corded model for larger fish, such as walleye, salmon, and trout, and a cordless model for panfish, like perch. He likes "The speed, and you don't have to use your arm as much. It's not as much work once you're used to it." He says the only drawback is the need for a power connection, either for corded or rechargeable models, when cleaning a large number of fish.