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Mastering the art of filleting panfish

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

Often as anglers our day is not over after we put the rods away, load the boat on the trailer and head home to our families. Instead we get the task of cleaning our catch. Sometimes this task is painstaking and can be frustrating as all get out. To many times to count I’ve had clients say to me at the dock at the end of the day I’ve brought a bucket, just throw my fish in it and I’ll clean them later or thanks for a great day on the water you may keep all my fish cause I don’t wanna deal with them. Many of you that have fished with me know my service is not complete until I or one of my mates clean your catch. This is part of the service I offer and I’ve found such joy in challenging myself to master the art of cleaning panfish I’ve borderline become obsessed with how my filets look. Recently I had a friend join me on a winter perch outing and while the fishing was amazing, I knew he wasn’t into the fact that he was gonna be loaded up on perch filets for a while. Before long I noticed some catch and release happening and I asked him what he was doing. Long story short he said cleaning them would be miserable for him as he isn’t good at cleaning fish at all and he would butcher them trying. In that moment I knew I needed to put a blog together to help all who feel like my good friend did that day.

So let’s dive in and build up your confidence to improve those fish filleting skills.

Step one is actually simple. Invest into a electric fillet knife lol. Seriously the saw will become your best friend and save you a ton of time resharpening your filet knife. It also is faster and safer to get the meat off of a fish. I just happened to upgrade this past November to the newest Rapala R12 lithium ion knife. Totally redesigned and so much nicer than the previous version. I highly recommend this product. You’re gonna have to practice but that’s okay because it means you’ll be fishing more. The downside to a new electric knife is that they’re sharp so do not push hard and let the blade glide down the back bone. If you push the knife you will smoke right thru the fish crossways and there is no recovering from that.

See tutorial of step one below.

Step two is to raid a fork from your significant others fine silverware drawer. I personally prefer a stiff fork. One with little handle flex and stiff tines. The fork will serve three main purposes. One will be to hold the filet in position so you don’t squish the meat and split your finger nail. Do this without a fork a few hundred times and I promise you your finger is gonna suffer. Two is to guide the knife along the top of the rib bones. Three and most importantly is to keep your finger away from your filet knife. I’ve recently become very fascinated with knife sharpening. Probably has stemmed from pushing myself to master filleting panfish. Being able to shave with my filet knife is a bonus. If you are looking to get into knife sharpening I highly recommend the Work Sharp Tools Ken Onion Edition sharpener. Super easy to use, portable and sharpens scissors too. I recommend a signed waiver if you are doing knives for your friends.

Proper fork placement.

Step three and don’t rush this part. Holding down pressure with the fork slide the fillet knife behind the top of the ribs. As you begin cutting you will hit the pin bones. Do not push the blade down vertically. Let the blade follow the ribs down and try to pop the ribs towards the bottom of the filet. After a few dozen times you’ll get the hang of it and begin to almost pop the ribs out. This will save you that rib meat and not leave you with the back strap of the perch only.

Once the ribs are out the fork that likely feels very awkward in your hand still needs to go to the tail section. Time to shave the meat off of the skin. This is where having a extremely sharp knife pays off. One shaving slice should do it even on a twelve inch perch. Smaller perch in the seven to nine inch category should peel very nicely.

Check the perfect filet out

This is gonna take a lot of practice if you’re a novice fish cleaner. It may take a couple hundred or a few thousand. If you rush it you’ll likely ruin some nice fish along the way. So take your time and go slowly at first. Once you get dialed in you should be able to make short order of 25 panfish.

Cleaning your catch doesn’t have to be a painful way to end a great day on the water. Have fun with it and challenge yourself to become a artist with a filet knife. You just might inspire the next guy that says you can keep his fish cause he hates cleaning them.

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