Ice fishing season in northern Maine is in full swing. Lakes and ponds throughout the region are filling with ice shacks; die hard fisherman staking their claim on the ice like the frontier land rush settlers of yore. Augers have bored access to the lunkers waiting beneath the ice. The tip ups are being set and the jigging rods are in hand.
While pan-fried trout and smoked salmon are regarded by some as the logical menu choice for their ice fishing endeavors, don’t overlook bass that come through the ice. Garlic and lemon bass fillets over white rice will give your palate a taste of summer, even after the coldest of ice fishing trips.
Here is a quick and easy method I use to fillet fish.
What you’ll need and preparation
The basic items you will need are: two sharp knives (one for cutting, one for filleting), wood or polymer cutting board, access to water for rinsing and a discard container. If you plan on freezing your fillets for later use, a roll of paper towels and a vacuum sealer will come in handy. Regular freezer bags will work just fine if you don’t own a vacuum sealer.
While it is not an absolute necessity to clean fish before filleting them, I recommend it. Best practice is to “Gut & Gill” the fish immediately after the catch. In Maine, we are required to either release the fish alive after the catch or immediately kill it and add to our daily bag.
TIP: Cleaning the fish and removing the gills after the catch keeps the fish fresher and helps avoid spoiling. It also makes for much neater work on the cutting board.
Making the cuts
Make your first cut just behind the pectoral fin vertically, using your cutting knife. The scales are very tough and will dull a knife quickly – use one knife for cutting and use the other only for the actual filleting step.
Make your cut to the backbone and stop, being careful not to cut through it. You can cut off the pelvic fins at this point if they are getting in your way. The pelvic fins are the ones on the belly near the head of the fish.
Next, insert the tip of your knife at the leading edge of the first cut you made at the top of the backbone. Make a cut along the backbone about an inch deep all the way to the middle of the caudal peduncle. That’s the place where the back and the tail meet. This will act as your guide when you start to fillet.
TIP: Be careful of that dorsal fin. It’s the spiky fin on the spine and will poke you if you grab the fish the wrong way!
Start the fillet
Run the fillet knife flat on a 45 degree angle from the top of the backbone where your first two cuts meet and “swing” the tip down and in along the rib cage until the knife is perpendicular to the backbone.
Let the fillet knife glide over the ribs and along the backbone in one long slow motion. Avoid “sawing” with the fillet knife. If you find that you need to saw, your knife is too dull.
TIP: Use the palm of your hand to keep slight downward pressure as you glide the fillet knife. Make sure to keep your hand flat!
Flip and finish
Next, flip the fillet away and over with the skin still attached at the caudal peduncle. Use the same method as before to get the fillet knife started. Ease the knife between the fillet and the skin, bringing the knife perpendicular again.
As before, using the flat palm of your hand on top of the fillet, glide the fillet knife along the skin all the way to the edge. Your fillet can now be trimmed of any rib meat or skin left attached. Flip your fish and repeat for the second fillet.
TIP: The bigger the fish, the easier it is to fillet; a fish smaller than 14 inches will be difficult and will not yield much.
A taste of summer
Whether you are back at home or at a remote fishing camp, preparing this meal is quick and easy.
Saute your fillets in a hot pan with butter and garlic. Sprinkle some lemon juice across the top for added flavor. As soon as the fish is white and flaky, it’s ready. Serve over a steaming bed of white rice.
Summer…I can taste it already.