There’s more than one way to fillet a fish

The author prefers to remove the rib bones after the filet has been removed from the carcass. (Photo by Mike Schoonveld)

There may be an easier-to-fillet fish than a coho salmon, but I haven’t found it. Chinook salmon are almost as easy, except when they get to be over 10 pounds or so (which happens frequently). Then, their size renders them a bit unwieldy.

There may be a harder-to-fillet fish in Michigan than a rock bass, but again, I’ve never found it. Bluegills, freshwater drum and even walleyes fall somewhere in between.

That’s because my preferred technique of slabbing off a fillet is to cut across the fish, just behind the pectoral fin, down to the backbone, then rotate the knife 90 degrees and slice along the backbone, through the rib bones and then continue all the way to the tail of the fish. The ribs stay on the fillet, initially, but they are easily removed in the next step.

Salmon are so easy because their rib bones are relatively soft and a moderately sharp fillet knife will slice through them easily. The rock bass are hard to fillet since their rib bones are made of wire similar to the strings on a bass fiddle. On these (and other tough-ribbed fish) I fillet around the rib bones leaving them attached to the backbone.

If I practiced on more rock bass, I’d probably get better at it, but it still wouldn’t be as slick as slabbing out a coho. Two different techniques for two different species of fish.

There’s a contingent of fish-fillet cutters out there who argue they only need one technique. For them, cutting around the rib bones instead of through them is the only method to employ. I’ve encountered them at fish cleaning stations around the state and though some are content to let me make my cuts my way, others seem duty-bound to point out my slice-through-the-ribs method is wrong, bordering on criminal.

According to them, the rib-slicing technique inevitably cuts into the organs encased inside the rib cavity. True. They claim those severed innards then release any number of foul and nasty fluids, secretions and juices. These, in turn, end up befouling the blade of the knife as it slices through the rest of the fillet, taints the belly meat and deposits gut-goo on the cutting board, contaminating it for the next fish.

Whoa! If I really believed them (or if I were really concerned), I’d change my ways. Actually, I do believe them a tiny bit. But I still use the cut-the-ribs technique on salmon and other fish with less than steel-wire-like rib bones.

Can I live with myself despite the gut-goo and secretions? Sure. It’s called a hose. Rinse the cutting board, rinse the knife, rinse the nasty off the fillet before bagging it. I’ll be done before most “around-the-ribs” cutters and they’d be done quicker if they’d spend less time explaining to me the error of my way.

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