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The basics: Knife selection, knife care, filleting and cleaning your catch.

Following on from how to kill your catch, the next episode of fishing basics series is going to cover filleting and cleaning your catch. First off I’ll cover knives, then knife care and finally actually filleting and cleaning your catch.


A little bit of knowledge about the styles of knives and knife selection, while not necessary is good background knowledge if your going to get serious about filleting your fish. So the next section, is happily skippable if your not interested in this sort of thing.

The first thiing to note about knives is the steel they are made of . Simply put knives can be made of “soft” steel, “hard” steel, carbon steel, stainless steel and all combination inbetween. Each “type” of steel has its own pros and cons, there is no “perfect” steel and the steel you chose will come down to personal preference, what the knife is being used for and what you are most comfortable with.

Steels, two school of thought

There are two very different schools on how to make a knife, I’ll refer to them as the European and Japanese schools. Basically, Japanese knives are made of very hard steels, they will hold an edge very well but are prone to chipping. In contrast European knives are generally made out of softer steels, this means they are less prone to chipping, however the edge is prone to folding over. This is why honing steels exist in European knife culture, a steel DOES NOT sharpen your knife, it simply straightens out the edge which will fold during use. In relation to fish filleting the two schools approach the same problem in two fundamentally different fashions, but ultimately achieve the same outcome. Neither approach is “better” than the other, they are just different.

European filleting knives are generally made of softer steels than japanese knives and are the knives most of you would know as “filleting knives”, with a long flexible blade. On the flipside, Japanese “filleting knives” (the term doesn’t fit exactly when applied to Japanese knives, given there is a wide variety of shapes and sizes, all of which are for quite specialized tasks) are far more diverse. The two most common “filleting” knives in the Japanese tradition are the “deba” which is used to break down the fish (fillet it) and the “Yanagi” (sashimi knife) which is often used for trimming and skinning. These knives differ from european knives in that they are made of far harder steel, they are not flexible and they only have a single bevel (only sharpened on one side, just like a chisel). Given the difference in hardware, the approaches used to break down a fish are quite different, I’ll go into that a bit when we finally get to the bit where I talk about how to fillet fish, but at this stage, its just interesting to note the difference. However, given most Australians grew up firmly in the European tradition, european knives are what most people will be comfortable using (bar the odd freak such as myself who uses knives and techniques from both schools :))

A traditional flexible European filleting knife
A Japanese Deba, used for breaking down (filleting) fish in the Japanese tradition
Japanese sashimi knife, often used to trim and skin fish in Japanese cookig

Theoretically, Japanese knives should stay sharper longer given they are made of harder steel that should hold and edge more effectively (although this is an area of intense debate). In practice, the difference is negligible in the real world and if you look after either style of knife well they will hold an edge and be your best friend at the filleting table. One thing to note, is that many japanese knives are still made of carbon steel which rusts easily, so they require significantly more up keep.

In general, which ever style you chose to get, the most important thing is to get a good quality knife. Get the best you can afford. The size of the knife will be determined by the size of fish you are catching, bigger knives for bigger fish smaller for small fish, its pretty simple.


Even the best knife is simply a paper weight if its not kept sharp. The quality of the knives you have will only come to fore if they are kept sharp and looked after. A sharp $10 cheapy is better than a blunt $300 masterpiece.

To look after your knives and keep them sharp you will need a number of things. Firstly, a set of water (whetstones) stones (you can use oil stones but they are far harder to use IMO), good quality if you can afford them. Secondly, if you are using European knives you will need a steel as well. Thirdly you’ll need a strop. Thats all you really need. You’ll then have to learn to use your stones and a bit about sharpening, this bit can take a while but in the long run is well worth it IMO. If you cant be bothered there are kits you can buy such as the edge pro system which do most of the hard work for you. Given that learning how to sharpen your knife is easier if you get to see some visual cues and that many others have already covered it in depth I’m just going to post some links to get you started on the learning process. Written guides, here, here, here, here, here and here. The other reason I’m avoiding it, is that there are numerous schools of thought on the best angle geometry etc which I don’t know enough to comment on. I usually sharpen my European filleting knives to a 15-17 degree angle with a secondary edge at 20-23 degrees so that the edge lasts longer

More video tutorials (here, here, here, here, here and in depth detail here). You get the idea, its not rocket science and your probably bored to death by now so time to move on.

Cleaning and filleting techniques-

First of all we will start with gutting and scaling. The simple stuff. You’ll need a knife at the bare minimum, but a heavy nylon brush and a scaler are also useful for cleaning out the gut cavity and scaling the fish. First up scale your fish, by either using the back of your knife or a scaler. To do this simply run your scaling implement against the grain of the scales, they should all come off pretty easily, although it will be a little more difficult on fish with large scales (e.g bream) and really easy on fish with small scales (e.g tailor). To gut the fish, simply insert the knife in the fishes anus and cut a line directly up the fish all the way to where the body meets the head of the fish. Then open up the cavity and remove the guts and gills. If you start with the gills, most of the guts should come with it. Then go in with your hands or a brush and get all the little bits of guts out and the stomach lining (this is especially important in fish such as morwong and yelloweye mullet). Rinse the fish (preferable rinse saltwater fish in saltwater, this goes for filleting as well, your fish will taste better :)). Your done, time to go home for a beer and some lovely roast fish.

Filleting small fish.

Exactly which method you use for filleting a fish will depend on the fish and on personal preference. No matter which technique you use, if you take care you will recover far more of the flesh. Different methods, “lose” more flesh than others, but thats only if you have great knife skills, so don’t feel too bad about using some of the simpler techniques. I’m going to use youtube videos to illustrate some of the more common techniques for filleting fish as there is no point trying to explain the details in words and I don’t have a good set of step by step photos (here are some good photo guides here, here (flounder) and here). The only way you are going to get better in any case is practice, so if you hope to get to the level of some of the people in some of the videos below I suggest you go fishing catch some fish and start practicing. Don’t worry if your not great first up, you’ll get better.

A few things to note first up, if you plan to skin your fillets, DO NOT scale your fish before you fillet it, the scales will make skinning far easier. If you plan to leave the skin on, scale your fish before you fillet. If the fish you have caught are saltwater fish, I prefer to do all rinsing with salt water, the texture and flavour of the fish, is in my opinion superior. For freshwater fish, simply rinse in clean tap water. Anyway onto the techniques.

The method below is an incredibly daggy illustration of the method I use for most small to medium fish. I usually use flexible european filleting knives for these fish. I sometimes use Japanese knives and techniques, but generally only when I am prepping the fish for sashimi and am filleting the fish with more care than normal. [youtube=]

The method demonstrated filleting Bream

Here is a little adaptation to the general idea that I like to use on whiting.

Butterflying a mackerel- very elegant, but you have to have pretty good knife skills and a sharp knife.

Here is some very QUICK filleting of garfish, something to aim for (Japanese filleting of a garfish careful and slow).

For filleting flathead this is my prefered method, fast and you recover most of the flesh!

For flounder this is the method i use, however, I kill my fish first. I don’t recommend filleting your fish live like these guys

Filleting larger fish

When filleting larger fish, the principles are the same, there are just a few little tweaks to the technique you’ll need to get used to. For example, Tuna have a line of bones running down the middle, so are easiest to filet by taking off two “loins” from each side, demonstrated in the videos below, with another technique demonstrated below.

Filleting kingfish videos. There are a number of different styles, just pick whichever you feel most comfortable with. The first video is filleting a kingfish western style, with a chefs knife, the second with a traditional European filleting knife and the last couple Japanese style. Personally for big fish, I prefer Japanese knives or stiff european chefs knives. The flexibility of a european filleting knife, which is great on small fish, for me makes things far more difficult on big fish.

The videos above cover the major techniques and variations, although there are more techniques out there, they are far more specialised and only really worth learning if you get really into the process of filleting your catch. The techniques above can be adjusted to fillet almost all fish and with a little bit of practice you should be taking off lovely clean fillets every-time. Happy filleting and if you have any other techniques that you think should be here, please post them in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Next up in the basics series, we start to get into posts about actually catching fish, with a great post by Lee on the basics of fishing with soft plastics. Also stayed tuned for Graham’s return to the cotter river trip report, the last trip wasn’t so successful, but this time Graz had a lot of success!


Hamish (June 2011)

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