The Right Tool Can Make Unpleasant Jobs More Bearable.
My survival toolbox is full of items I need to keep my family and me fed and healthy. Knives of all sorts are part of that kit. Some of them include fillet knives, a style of knife that often isn’t what one thinks of for survival (and the focus of this article).
Some might say that any knife can be used to fillet a fish, and this is true to a point; but that’s like saying a rock can be used to drive a nail: Although a rock will do the job, the proper hammer will do the job better.
The same can be said when it comes to knives: Use the proper knife for the job at hand. The generally long, thin, flexible blade of a good fillet knife makes short work of a slippery fish.
Over the years, I’ve had, and used, many fillet knives. Some I really like; others, not so much. I still have, and regularly use, some of these knives.
This article will discuss what I consider my five favorite fillet knives.
Many people believe you have to spend a great deal of money for a quality knife. Honestly, my hands start to shake if I spend more than $50 on any knife (I get the same way when I have to pay that much for a pair of sneakers!). With that said, I’ve spent much more than that for certain knives—but that’s only after many hours of research that shows the price is justifiable.
What you’ll realize is that you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a good, functional knife. You might or might not agree with my choices, but they’ve all served me well.
Rapala Fish ’N Fillet
When I was a kid, my gear wasn’t always the “best,” but it was the best I could afford. My goal was to always have a Mitchell fishing reel and a tackle box full of Rapala lures. You must remember that this was a time when Rapala lures were hand carved from wood in Finland, as opposed to the mass-produced plastic lures manufactured in China that we have today. Back then, if your gear said “Rapala,” you were really something (or at least you thought you were).
While trout fishing at one of my favorite spots about 30 years ago, I found a Rapala Fish ‘N Fillet knife in its original leather sheath just lying there on the bank. I tried to find the angler who might have lost it. However, I didn’t find them, so I took it home. The knife had obviously seen some use. The blade looked as if someone had sharpened it with a grinding wheel, and the sheath had seen better days. Even so, it was a Rapala! It was my main fillet knife for many years.
This knife had a 4-inch, stainless steel blade, which was the perfect size for the fish I normally caught. The Fish ‘N Fillet kept an edge like no other fillet knife I’ve ever had, and the stainless steel made cleanup very easy. The handle was maple and, although it was a bit bulkier than other knives. I liked it because it allowed me to keep a firm grip.
About 20 years ago, I gave this knife away to a young fisherman who really needed a good knife. Perhaps I saw myself in that young person. Who knows? But it felt like the right thing to do. I was looking for a slightly larger knife at the time, and he needed it more than I did.
It was at that time that I picked up the next knife on the list.
Remington/Stren Fillet Knife
While the Rapala’s 4-inch blade was great for smaller fish, I needed a knife that was a bit larger; one I could use on lake trout and salmon. I went for the Remington/Stren 6-inch fillet knife. It was the perfect size—large enough for the bigger fish yet small enough for stream trout and panfish.
Like all Remington knives, the fillet knife was produced for Remington by another manufacturer. These fillet knives all have a 6-inch, stainless steel blade and a textured Kraton handle that’s very easy on the hands. “Stren” is marked on the blade and “Remington” on the handle.
There are two things all fillet knives must have: First, they must have a strong, flexible blade. Second, they must hold an edge. The Remington/Stren knife has both of these qualities.
However, like many good, inexpensive knives, this knife is no longer being produced. Obviously, something new has come along. Even so, this knife can still be found for sale online, so if you’re looking for one, that’s the best place to look.
Gerber Gator Fillet
About five or six years ago, I was planning a trip to Louisiana to fish for red drum (redfish), black drum and flounder. I planned to bring home what I caught, so I needed a larger fillet knife. Because drum are tough fish, the knife had to be just as tough. After a great deal of searching, I found the Gerber Gator 7.5-inch fillet knife … and I was glad I did.
The blade length was perfect for the big-bodied saltwater fish, and the full tang provided the strength I needed. The synthetic, nonslip handle felt comfortable in my hand—very important for blade control. Since that trip to Louisiana, this knife’s made the trip to Florida for snook, and it’s in constant use here, along the New England coast, for striped bass and bluefish.
Gerber no longer includes this knife in its Gator line. Even so, if you’re partial to Gator knives, you might still be able to find them online. If you can find one, grab it!
Gerber Controller Folding Fillet
It seems that Gerber replaced the Gator line of knives with the Controller line. Unlike the Gators, the Controllers are available in both fixed blades and folders. Because space is always at a premium, it was the idea of a folding fillet knife that intrigued me. Clearly, I had to have one!
I like this knife for a few reasons. First, it’s easy to carry. Because it’s a folder, it fits nicely into my jacket pocket or in the cargo pockets of my pants. Second, the handle has something that Gerber calls a “HydroTread grip,” which is extremely comfortable and allows for a firm grip. Lastly, the 6-inch blade, which has been treated for corrosion resistance, is just the right size for lake trout, salmon and smaller bluefish.
Betts Billy Bay HiViz Fillet Knife
It’s funny, but I picked this knife up on a whim at Bass Pro Shops. I wanted a knife to keep in my tacklebox … simply because. I didn’t need another fillet knife (I have plenty!). I carry a couple of knives at all times. Similarly, I like the idea of having a couple of fillet knives available when I go fishing. Many things could—and usually do—happen on a fishing trip. Fishing rods break, reels fail, and knives get misplaced. It’s essential to always have a backup.
There’s nothing fancy or special about this knife. In fact, it looks a great deal like a toy, but a toy it is not. The 6-inch, stainless steel blade is extremely sharp and, as on all top-of-the-line knives, the blade’s very flexible. The handle and the sheath are either bright orange or lime green. As a result, there’s no way you won’t see this knife at the bottom of your tacklebox.
Is it my number-one go-to knife? No way. Is it a great backup knife if one’s needed? You bet it is.
I’m not about big-dollar items or brand names. I purchase tools and gear that work. My bottom line is putting food on the table and in the freezer. The tools I use—in this case, fillet knives—I use because they make my job much easier.
Cleaning and filleting fish aren’t the fun part of the job, but they have to be done. Using the proper tools for the job makes an unpleasant endeavor safer and more tolerable.
Fillet Knife Care
Many people believe that if a knife has a stainless steel blade, it doesn’t need care. That’s not true.
Keep it Clean
After each use, make sure to carefully wash your knife in warm, soapy water. Pay close attention to the area at which the blade meets the handle to ensure you remove any debris from nooks and crannies. Any bits of flesh, blood or scale can lead to bacteria that can be transferred directly to you or to the next fish you fillet. Bacteria will also make your knife stink!
Thoroughly dry the knife and apply a light coat of vegetable oil to the blade.
Keep it Sharp
A sharp knife is not only a safe knife, it also makes your job much easier.
Before I begin cleaning and filleting any fish, I make sure the blade is sharp. A sharp knife will fillet with very little effort, while a dull knife will require more pressure—and it could easily slip.
If I’m cleaning many fish or cleaning tough-skinned fish with heavy scales (such as striped bass, drum or yellow perch), I’ll re-sharpen the blade often.
If your knife holds an edge well, nothing more than a few swipes on a ceramic rod are (usually) required to keep it suitably sharp.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.