You can pick up some pointers at the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby’s fillet set-up outside the Edgartown weigh station from guys like Eli Bonnell and Jared Stobie.
Louisa Gould

Asking someone how to fillet a fish is sort of like asking how to catch a fish: You ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers. Only difference is, when you ask about filleting, people will probably tell you the truth.

Some people use a filleting knife, some use an electric knife; some leave the skin on, some take it off; some cut the skin away with a knife, some pull it off with pliers; some simply cut out the fillet, some leave the rib cage in and cut it out later – you get the picture.

Betsy Larsen of Chilmark, owner of Larsen’s Fish Market in Menemsha, knows someone who had been cutting fish for twenty years, but when he went to work at a fillet house in New Bedford, he was told to forget everything he knew because their way was the only right way.

But there is one thing everyone will agree on. Assuming you’re not using an electric knife, you need a razor-sharp filleting knife, ideally at least eight or nine inches long, with a thin blade that has a little flex to it. The secret is to let the knife do the work, and there’s no better way to mangle a perfectly good fillet than with a dull blade.

To fillet fish at home, you’ll need some sort of cutting board – a piece of plywood will do – and access to some water to wash everything down. You also don’t want to work too close to a deck or patio, because you’ll likely attract flies, especially if you scale the fish.

Which begs the question: to scale or not to scale. If you’re going to keep the skin on, you have to scale the fish. It’s real simple: You just run a knife or fish scaler against the grain and the scales fly right off. If you’re going to remove the skin, there’s obviously no need to scale it.

Next question: What’s the difference between keeping the skin on or taking it off? Betsy generally sells striped bass and bluefish with the skin on. She prefers the way it looks, and since the meat of the bluefish can be a little flaky, it holds the fillet together. If you cook it on the grill with the skin down, you just slide a spatula between the fillet and the skin when it’s done and lift off the fillet leaving the skin on the grill. Unless you like to eat the skin – lots of people enjoy the crispy skin of a grilled striper.

Betsy recommends that before you begin filleting, you chill the fish and let it set for a while; it’s easier to cut if rigor mortis has set in. She also says that a fish that has set has a better sheen and looks more appetizing. It’s best to let a flatfish like fluke set overnight; let bluefish and striper set for at least a couple of hours.

So how do you get a nice professional-looking fillet? This is Betsy’s way of cutting up a bluefish or striper: You begin by laying the fish on the board and making a slightly diagonal cut from the top of the fish up near the head, down to the bottom as if you were going to remove the head. Cut just behind the small fin in back of the gill plate and just deep enough so you feel the bones.

Next, starting at the top of the cut you just made, make a second cut all the way down the back of the fish to the tail. The cut only has to be about a quarter-inch deep; you want to be able to feel the knife touch the backbone. You then begin to remove the fillet, starting up at the top front intersection of the first two cuts. Using the tip of the knife, work your way down along the fish separating the fillet from the skeleton system. It helps to lift up the fillet a little as you’re doing this. Just make a smooth even cut slightly over the skeletal system – you’ll be able to feel it – working your way down to the tail of the fish. Cut across at the tail and continue up the bottom and across the belly until you reach the original diagonal cut. Now turn the fish over and repeat the same process on the other side.

Next just trim up the two fillets and if you want, remove the red or darker meat; it tends to have a stronger taste and you can either cut it out or leave it in – it’s up to you.

You use essentially the same technique for a flounder or fluke, starting with the top or brown side. But you make the long, lengthwise cut down the middle of the fish and cut out a fillet on either side. Turn the fish over and repeat the process – you’ll end up with four fillets. And if you get a bone or two – don’t worry, you can feel them by running your fingers over the fillet and pull them out with a pair of pliers or tweezers.

To skin a fillet, lay it skin down on the board and starting at the tail, you gently run the blade of the knife just above the skin until the fillet is released. Some cutters pull the skin toward them and leave the knife stationary; if that works better for you, that’s fine too.

When you’re done, dispose of the carcasses; you get bonus points if you give them to a lobsterman to use for bait.

All in all, filleting is not that difficult and with a little practice you’ll be cutting with the best of them. Just remember, keep your knife sharp – and watch your fingers.