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Volume 15, Issue 14 ~ April 5 - April 11, 2007

Fish Processing Tools 101

Two knives and a scaler cut the work of cleaning fish

With fishing season upon us, make sure your gear is in shape for the coming months of fish fries, fish barbeques and extraordinary fish dinners. Begin with knives and fish scalers.

Many anglers approach cleaning with a suitably sized kitchen knife or the utility knife they carry about in their tackle box. For an occasional foray into the Bay, those knives may get the job done. But if you intend to fish and eat fish on a regular basis, that approach can be frustrating, inefficient and downright messy.

The proper knives and the right scaling instrument make a difference not only in the quality and efficiency of the job but also in the ease in which it is accomplished.

Fish Knives

Fish Are Biting

White perch continue to develop a good spring run. Males of all sizes have congregated in many tributary headwaters, along with a few nice sized females, but many of the larger fish are still staging in deeper water. Matapeake Pier has seen lots of the better sized whites caught recently. Grass shrimp and bloodworms fished on the bottom is the key there.

The big striper catch-and-release fun at Sandy Point State Park is building nicely. Bloodworms and cut bait on circle hooks fished on the bottom seem to work best. The Susquehanna Flats have been cursed with cold, muddy and otherwise filthy water releases from the Conowingo Dam. The stripers staging there have been scattered and uncomfortable, but it has been improving of late. Live and cut bait on circle hooks are working Sometimes it’s good fishing. That situation should improve rapidly as the temperatures rise, the waters clear and the fish begin taking lures.

I favor Dexter-Russell knives, which are used by commercial fish processors throughout the U.S. Similar knives are made by other manufacturers, but for simplicity I’ll refer to Dexter-Russells as the standard.

These knives are affordable and available in most sporting and boating stores. They are good quality stainless, keep a very sharp edge and come in models designed for various types and sizes of fish.

Most importantly, they have textured, non-slip, polypropylene handles that grip comfortably and will keep your hands safe. They will also survive the occasional trip through the dishwasher, though all good cutlery should be washed and dried by hand.

Two essential models for handling the size and species of fish normally caught in mid-Bay are the six-inch wide boning knife and the six-inch flexible curved boning knife.

The stiffer knife cuts through stouter fish ribs and backbones. The flexible, curved knife handles the bones of smaller fish and the more delicate task of slicing fillets away from skeletal structures.

Always sharpen your knives lightly before you use them and again, more thoroughly, after you’ve finished. A razor-sharp blade means effortless fish cleaning. It is far, far easier to keep a knife sharp than to bring back an edge once it’s been dulled.

Fish Scaler

The right scaler for the Bay is a Bicco Fish Scaler. If you are accustomed to using a serrated steel scraper or other toothed instrument or just the back of a knife to rasp the scales off of your catch, you are also used to wildly flying scales and frequent scraped and bloody fingers.

The Bicco takes an ingenious approach to fish scaling. Made out of hard plastic in various bright colors, it has a wedge-shaped head designed to slip under the scales of the fish and lift them off.

Since its introduction, knockoffs have been made by other manufacturers, but I take the Bicco as the standard.

Starting at the fish’s tail, you firmly slide the scaler forward with a straight pressing motion on the handle. It’s more like methodically shaving the fish than scaling it. A small serrated edge on the side of the tool enables you to get in the more restricted areas around the fins. That’s all there is to it. No more flying debris.

Fifty years ago, my sainted Irish mother threatened me with dismemberment and death if I ever again scaled a fish in her kitchen. If there had been one of these gizmos back then, my life would have been much more peaceful and a good deal less messy.


April 21–The Sixth Annual Boatyard Bar and Grill Catch and Release Rockfish Tournament, planned for opening day, is still accepting boat entries. This is one of the most popular sporting tournaments mid-Bay as well as the best opening day party in Annapolis. All tournament proceeds to help Chesapeake Bay:

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