There’s no such thing as a do-it-all knife

The author uses a variety of knives and tools to gut, clean, skin, fillet or otherwise cut up his outdoor harvest. 

I’m a rough, tough outdoor guy who has been known to harvest some sort of game or fish one minute and have it over a fire, in a skillet, or on the grill a minute or two later.  I’m also a fan of TV cooking shows. My cooking style and that of the TV chefs have little in common except for one thing: knives.

I’ve frequently seen TV chefs show up on camera ready to teach, compete, or create, armed only with their own personal set of knives. They’ll use a strange stove, any ol’ pot or pan, often mystery or mysterious ingredients, but don’t ask them to grab yours, mine, or anyone else’s knife to slice, dice, or chop the foods they are preparing.

That’s where we are alike. I’ve assembled a set of favorite cutlery over the years and though I don’t expect to ever go up against or be compared to a celebrity chef, with these knives I’m equipped to butcher anything from a wicked tuna to a smelt, a sora rail to a turkey, or a squirrel to an elk. Try that Bobby Flay!

I know guys who brag up their ability to gut, skin, and fillet anything and everything using only their folding pocket knife. Indeed, I’ve cleaned just about everything with my pocket knife at one time or another – maybe not a wicked tuna or a moose, but certainly most commonly caught fish here in Michigan as well as deer, small game, ducks, geese, and game birds.

My pocket knife “butcheries” were performed due to unplanned or poorly executed adventures (mostly forgetfulness) when I didn’t have access to the right tools for the job.

So what are “my” right tools?


I shunned electric fillet knives for decades. I didn’t like the idea of using a 120V power tool in wet conditions and I considered electric knives to be tools for those who didn’t know how to keep a fillet knife sharp. Then several manufacturers started making cordless electrics.

Now, the knife (or knives) I use depends on the species of fish I’m cleaning. In general, I grab the 6-incher for panfish and use  the 9-inch blade on big fish like salmon and trout. I use the electric to cut the slabs off of walleye, lake trout, and others with tough rib bones, then switch to an appropriately-sized fixed blade to slick out the ribs and remove the skin from the fillet.


I often clean ducks, geese and pheasants by filleting off the breast meat with a 6-inch fillet knife. I then remove the legs and thighs with a four-inch, non-flexible bladed knife to make the cuts needed to remove the legs and thighs. When I plan to leave the bird “whole” for roasting or other preparations I use the 4-inch blade for most of the cuts then turn to game shears to trim off wings, legs, necks and tails.

Small game

I use the same 4-inch fixed-blade knife to clean squirrels and rabbits but again turn to game shears to cut off the feet, trim the ribs, and separate the carcass into individual pieces.

Big game

Most big game is field dressed before being transported. I’ve dressed dozens of deer using only a 5- or 6-inch “hunting” knife, but after the first time I used a “gut hook knife” to make the cut needed to open the belly from chest to pelvis, I added one to my field pack.

I use the 6-inch fixed blade hunting knife to skin and quarter the deer or other big game then I switch to a 5-inch boning knife to remove the individual cuts of meat from the carcass.

Sharpness counts

Whether you keep a separate kit for each kind of fish or game you harvest or adhere to the “do it all with the pocket knife” school of butchering, the most important thing is to learn how to sharpen your knives and then keep them sharp while they are being used.

Categories: How To’s, Michigan – Mike Schoonveld, Wisconsin – Jim Hudson

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