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Will Elliott’s Outdoors: How to ensure your fish fillets are a cut above the rest

Fresh fish fillets serve as one of the many rewards after an enjoyable day on the water.

Most anglers prepare their own catches for family and friends to enjoy, and much depends upon how effectively fish are processed and prepared for the table. Freshness is a preparation priority, which is probably why a shore lunch seems to sound even better than a sit-down at home later in the day or days later.

So many ways, most efficient and effective, have been shown as a means to separate fish from their most enjoyably edible parts. The late Mike Levy once did a column on a guy who used a twist drill to process perch. One Canadian outfitter starts his northern pike processing with a double-edged axe.

Electric knives can empty a bucket of panfish quicker than most hand-held knife blades. All companies making motor-driven knives have good safety features and can speedily get through lanes of rib bones that can be scalped out on a reverse pass. Some meat is lost with an electric knife, but not enough to overlook its use on a summit-like stack of sunfish, bluegills, crappie, perch and other round-bodied, close-boned, tough-skinned, hog panfish that can be caught around Western New York.

No two anglers fillet a fish the same way and cuts of fish meat come out remarkably well with many methods. A first concern is safety. Chainmail-like gloves are made that will protect fingers and hands from knife blades and points, but the best approach is to make cuts and skinning in a direction away from one’s body and the fish-holding hand.

Expert fish processors can work with dulling blades, but for the average angler the best approach when filleting is to keep the knife edge as keen as possible for as long as possible. Product names such as Rapala, Buck, Schrade, Kershaw, Bubba, Walther, and other known and unknown brands all work well as filleting tools.

The difference in effective cutting for most filleting production is twofold, depending on one’s filleting style and sharpening techniques. Basically, sustained blade sharpness comes down to the quality of the steel in the blade. All edges, even on the discount, no-name brands, will hold an edge for a while; better quality knives slice and skin a bit longer.

One of the best yardsticks for measuring a knife’s cutting ability is to slowly slide it along the surface of a thumbnail. If it slides off, it needs sharpening. If it gently locks into the nail surface, it will probably be good for a few fillets.

While filleting, another good gauge is slicing moves. When cutting out meat sections, and especially while separating skin from fillets, when the knife needs to saw meat where it sliced and slid on previous cuts, it needs to be sharpened.

The fewer cuts through bone and scales, the longer a blade remains sharp. Cuts along the backbone and particularly around the base of the gill plates can be made with the knife angled under scales that concentrically circle the fish’s body. Bones along the rib cage can be trimmed on the outside to circle the rack of ribs rather than cut through bone and peel it off from the inside cavity later.

Our overseas fellow anglers from much of Europe, South Africa and especially our Oriental friends kind of grin at the meat lost when we fillet both panfish and bigger game fish. We tend to lose some meat when skittering around rib cages.

Skinning is another means of meat loss. Short filleting knives work great on panfish and for smaller cuts on big fish, but a long blade allows for greater flex when skinning meat from skin on a flat surface. Meat separates more smoothly and with less loss when the leading edge of the fillet is drawn taut before beginning to skin.

On some older, mature fish, a liver-like liner has formed on the meat just under the skin. A taut draw on the skin allows for a cut above that liver lining on those big, old fish.

Nearly every fish taken from fresh or salt water develops residue in meat tissue, not counting parasites that penetrate the flesh. For decades, mindful cooks soaked fillets in baking soda overnight to draw out those milky substances that give fillets an off taste.

One much quicker way to extract those taste crunchers is to immerse the fillets in cold water and gently squeeze them under water and watch the white stuff come out. Do this again in clean, cold water another time or two until a light squeeze results in clear water.

Thereafter, any cooking method - fried, baked, broiled and probably even sushi fillets - will come out a better palate pleaser.

Try these tips and maybe your squeamish family members and guests will rave/praise your next fresh-fish dinner.