Cut to the Chase: Blade basics for saltwater anglers.

Spanish mackerel are among the easiest to fillet.

Much like the argument about which hulls raise the most fish, each lifelong fish-cleaner has an idea on just what knives are best for cleaning fish.

I’ll narrow it down and suggest three basic blades—with a possible fourth.

For starters, you’ll want a 7- or 8-inch all-around fillet knife. For big fish such as groupers and cobia, I prefer the stiffness and edge-holding quality of an 8-inch Dexter Russell or Forschner.

A second, smaller blade—thin and flexible—is also valuable. A 4-incher, such as the classic Rapala Fish N Fillet with the wood handle, is my “go-to” knife for cutting the backbone out of a “cutback” mullet or trimming a bonito strip to swim perfectly. It’s also ideal for cutting the backside off a flounder—you want all that great meat you can take! The 4-incher is also great for cleaning panfish such as warmouth perch.

Classic Rapala Fish N Fillet knife.

A third knife I wouldn’t be without is a serrated blade. This is the one you’ll want for cutting the hides of triggerfish and sheepshead, or rib bones and backbones of snapper, grouper or kingfish. The sawing action of a serrated blade cuts through tough hides and bones easier than the sharpest smooth blade.

What about an electric knife? In areas where large numbers of fish (such as Crescent Lake specks or Steinhatchee trout) you’ll also see plenty of electric knives. Quick and easy rules the day there. But among hard-core saltwater fish cutters, electrics are considered blasphemy. Making delicate cuts around the rib cage instead of sawing through the ribs is almost impossible with an electric. Salt water is also hard on them.

Look Sharp

Decide which type sharpener you prefer. Some like a manual, wedgetype double edge stone sharpener, followed by a smooth stone tactical sharpener to hone a finer edge. My hero, Northeast Florida’s Capt. Fred Morrow, dearly loved his old-fashioned whet stone and would watch TV by the hour while constantly stroking his fillet knives across the stone. He’d have a good chuckle at me taking 15 seconds per blade to stroke my blades through the groove in my electric Diamond Stone sharpener. For somebody with my attention span, the $65 for my sharpener may be the best money I’ve spent.

The ideal angle to sharpen a fillet knife is open to personal preference. Most fillet knives are sharpened between 17 and 22 degrees (on each side). A good rule of thumb is the smaller the angle, the finer the edge, but the bigger the angle, the longer the edge will last. If you sharpen the blade too fine (at too small an angle) it will chip easily and lose its edge.

Steel: Hard Facts

The custom knife-maker’s world surrounds deep wells of wisdom on metallurgy, design and function.

John Galeani, Jr., of Two Rivers Knife Company in Jacksonville, FL, says, “A good fillet knife has to be stainless. Steel becomes stainless through the addition of chromium. Adding at least 12 percent chromium makes a blade stainless, and prevents it from rusting.

“The amount of carbon in the steel will determine its hardness, and adding an element called Vanadium aids the knife’s uniformity, as well as protecting against oxidation.

“The size of the carbides are what ultimately determines what type of edge a knife will have,” says Galeani. “Smaller carbides (metal and carbon particles) will produce substantially finer edges, but they won’t hold their edge as well as a blade with bigger carbides. Bigger carbides don’t get as sharp, but they hold their edges better. Many mass producers of fillet knives will also add helium to some of their blades. Whereas helium ensures knives will never rust, fine edges are impossible on helium-infused blades, so these knives are usually serrated.” FS

First Published Florida Sportsman February 2019

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