Freshly caught fish was seldom on the dinner menu at my boyhood home in southern Iowa. In the years before the DNR there dammed the Des Moines River into manmade lakes, we didn't have many close-to-home angling options. But on the rare occasion perch was "what's for dinner," my mom always served it with quarter-sized hunks of hard bread. This was insurance against the dreaded fish bone caught in the throat, a kind of baked ramrod to be swallowed immediately after each bite of fish.
Thankfully I have progressed beyond the fish-scaling spoon and the pick-the-flesh-from-the-bones eating technique. But I'm still not completely confident in my fish filleting skills. If your fishing fraternity is like mine, there is normally one person who is the designated fish filleter. If you're still happy to hand your fish over to someone else to clean, this photo essay is for you.
It's a step-by-step method on how to do your fish justice; to revere the hard-won resource; to end up with the perfect fillet -- no bones about it.
My go-to guy for fish cleaning is Kenton Anderson of Minnetonka. He learned this technique 30 years ago from Terry Kecheski, a commercial fisherman on the Canadian side of Namakan Lake. Anderson has honed his filleting skills on the shores of Lake Vermilion, where he has a cabin.
Here is Anderson's technique:
Apply some blunt-force anesthesia to the fish's head. A flopping fish can lead to filleted fingers.
With the fish on its back, Anderson makes his first incision -- a deep cut just behind the pectoral fins. Then, turning the fish's belly away from him, he continues the cut to the spine. He then turns the blade horizontal and feels the knife's way down the spine toward the tail, stopping about an inch short of where the tail begins.
Flipping the fish lengthwise, Anderson then shears the skin off the fillet by sawing the blade away from him. Note: If you intend to transport the fish you must leave 1 square inch of skin on the fillet. The second fillet is removed in the same manner.
REMOVING RIB CAGE
Feeling for the top of the rib cage on the inside of the fillet, Anderson pulls the edge up with his fingernails to allow the knife blade under the ends of the ribs. He carefully de-ribs the fillet by making several slicing jabs along the bones as he continues to pull the rib cage up with his fingers.
The final cleaning step is pinpointed by fingertips. Anderson feels along the middle of the inside of the fillet near the front for the secondary ribs, sometimes called pin bones. These will be especially evident on larger fish. He removes these by making eighth-inch-deep parallel cuts in a V on either side of the secondary ribs. This incision will be as narrow as the ribs and about 2 inches long. Then he removes this line of bones by freeing it with his fingers.
The technique featured above works on walleyes, saugers and any other fish in the perch family. Clip and save this story in your tackle box. Armed with your knife, knowledge and some practice, you will soon be the go-to guy or gal for readying the shore lunch main course. Bring the cast-iron frying pan, the butter, the cracker-crumb batter and some potatoes. But, because your fillets are completely boneless, you can leave the bread at home. See a related video at startribune.com/video.