Knowing which bones to pick

Experts make filleting look easy

Posted: Friday, July 14, 2000

FAIRBANKS -- Watching Tyler Dahlstron cut up halibut after halibut, you would never guess he is just 15 years old.

Operating on a plastic table situated on the back of the 43-foot Lady Luck as it cruised through Prince William Sound back to Valdez harbor, Dahlstron wields a knife in his right hand like an orchestra conductor with a baton.

He slices a line down the middle of the fish and then begins to slice the meat off the rib bones, peeling the fillet off the fish as he slices along the rib bones.

In less than a minute, Dahlstron has removed a boneless hunk of halibut resembling a giant, white slice of pizza. He repeats the process three more times, taking two fillets from each side of the fish. He also cuts the meat from the cheeks of the halibut, digging small divots of meat from the side of the fish's head, considered by some to be the best-tasting meat on the flatfish. Finished, Dahlstron tosses the carcass of the fish off the back of the boat and it disappears into the wake.

''Halibut are pretty easy,'' said Dahlstron. ''It just takes a little practice to peel the fillet off at the bone.

Last summer, his first working as a deckhand for Northern Comfort Charters, Dahlstron worked a total of 51 days, a number he would like to surpass this year.

''I usually do at least 20 a day,'' said Dahlstron after finishing up with exactly that many on a recent charter.

A properly filleted fish means more meat and less hassle when it comes to cooking and eating the fish -- that is fewer bones to remove when chewing. It also looks better than one which has been hacked up like a piece of knotted firewood.

''If it's done improperly you lose a lot of meat,'' said Mike Kramer, a king salmon fishing guide on the Gulkana River who has filleted hundreds, if not thousands, of king salmon for clients in the 12 years he has operated Gulkana River Experience.

For Kramer, the filleting process starts as soon as one of his clients catches a fish. To get the best taste from your fish, it's crucial to bleed the fish immediately after catching it.

''Get all the blood out of the meat while it's freshly killed,'' said Kramer.

Fishers should also avoid using rocks to club fish on the head to kill them, said Scott Sisk, resident fish filleter at Interior Alaska Fish Processors Inc. in Fairbanks.

''See that bruise there?'' asked Sisk, pointing to a dark red spot on a chunk of king salmon he had cut to be smoked. ''That's because he killed it with a rock.

''If you whack them in the head with rocks you're going to get bruises,'' he said.

Another thing fishers should never do, Sisk said, is pick up a fish by its tail.

''You'll break its back and make all the meat bloodshot,'' he said.

When it comes to cutting up the fish, perhaps the most important thing is having the right tool for the job.

''Have a good sharp knife, that's all there is to it,'' Sisk said, honing the blade on his knife before cutting into a pair of chum salmon.

''If you're trying to force a dull knife through a bone it can be dangerous,'' Kramer said.

Kramer also recommends using a different knife for cutting steaks or cutting heads from the fish.

''You don't want to use your fillet knife for that,'' he said. ''It's not designed to do that effectively.''

Another thing that makes filleting fish easier is having a good work surface to operate on.

''An elevated table is best,'' Kramer said. ''You want some kind of mat, where the fish is laying flat and isn't going to slide around.''

Leaving the head of the fish on ''gives you something to hold on to,'' said Kramer, noting that some people hammer a nail into a board and anchor the fish's head on the nail to hold the fish in place for filleting.

The actual cutting of the fish is simple, if you ask the experts. ''There's nothing to it,'' Sisk said.

With the belly of the cleaned fish facing you, remove the fins from the belly and starting just behind the head, place the blade of the fillet knife against the backbone and cut along the backbone to the tail, making sure the blade of the knife doesn't lift off the backbone.

''You want that blade constantly grinding on the backbone,'' Kramer said.

All the while, you should be lifting the fillet off the bone as you cut through the rib bones.

Once the fillet has been cut, you shave off the rib bones, working from the head down to the belly, lifting the bones off the fish as you go and being careful to apply pressure against the bones so you don't lose any meat.

The dorsal fin presents the only real obstacle when filleting a salmon, and Sisk said it doesn't really matter whether you cut over or under the fin.

Sisk also trims a strip of skin off the top and bottom of the fillet to remove any freezer-burned pieces and to make it look cleaner.

Kramer said many people make the mistake of wasting strips of belly meat on salmon and keeping only the fillets.

''On both reds and kings that's a nice chunk of meat for smoking,'' he said. ''It's a very oily part of the fish.''

Kramer said he prefers filleting red salmon over kings because they are smaller and the rib bones can be removed along with the fillet with some practice.

''If you angle the knife right you can fillet the ribs with the same motion as you're lifting the fillet off the backbone,'' he said. ''With a king, it's two separate motions.''

The best way to store fish before it's filleted is on top of ice or in cold water, Kramer said.

Once you fillet the fish, Kramer said you shouldn't rinse the meat until you're ready to process it.

That's why it's best to keep filleted fish in plastic bags on ice or in ice water. Coolers should be drained frequently to avoid any water contacting meat.

The quicker you can get the fish on ice after catching it the better, Sisk said.

''You see those cracks in the meat?'' asked Sisk, referring to small crevasses in the chum fillets he had just cut. ''They didn't get this fish on ice quick enough.''



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