The ornery northern pike is one of the great game fish of the Upper Midwest and Canada. Anyone who’s ever caught one can tell you stories about their fighting prowess. But when it comes to the table, in most places you will get a raised eyebrow and some expression of disbelief that you can actually eat them: “Don’t they have a lot of bones?”
Actually, yes they do. But in Canada and in other places where the not-so-secret knowledge of how to fillet a pike hasn’t been lost, the northern’s reputation as table fare exceeds even that of the sacred walleye. I happen to agree. Pike to me has a tighter flake and a denser, richer flavor without being oily or fishy. As far as shore lunch goes, it has no equal.
But the trick is to get boneless pieces to fry up. There are any number of ways to do this.
First, with small pike about 14 inches or thereabouts, you can fillet like a regular fish, removing the ribs of course, and then slice the fillets into little fingers vertically—i.e., perpendicular to where the backbone was—and fry anyway. This process opens up the little “Y” bones to the hot oil and softens them enough to where you will barely notice them. Extra calcium, anyone?
This won’t work with a decent-sized pike, though. For that you really do need to deal with the “Y” bones. I was recently up at Gods Lake in Manitoba, Canada, where we fished pike with Cree Indian guides. The guides filleted the northerns in the usual way, then sliced out the “Y” bones in a strip, leaving a normal-looking fillet (more or less).
This is a perfectly good way to do the job. But the problem is that even though the pike fillet looks like that of, say, a walleye, it isn’t—it is of many different thicknesses, so cooking it whole will be a challenge. The Cree get around this by cutting the fillets into pieces and frying them up for shore lunch.
I prefer a different method. My method I learned from reading the late, great A. J. McClane’s Encyclopedia of Fish Cookery many years ago. It results in not two fillets, but five. I’ve also improved on McClane’s method by borrowing a trick from salmon anglers: using a spoon to scrape out all the extra meat from the carcass as well as from in between those “Y” bones.
Here’s how to do it:
- While not strictly necessary, I do gut pike before I fillet them because filleting a pike takes a while and all those guts make my work area messy. I also use this chance to trim off the bottom fins on the pike—they get in the way of the side fillets I am about to cut.