June 06, 2022
By Scott Mackenthun
Walleye is the state fish of Minnesota and South Dakota, but its culinary qualities are revered all across the Midwest region. The fish’s flaky, soft and sweet white flesh pairs well with just about anything you can imagine.
Personally, if I were sentenced to death and could choose a final meal, I would ask for a shore lunch with—you guessed it—walleye fillets.
Unfortunately, many anglers do themselves—and the fish they harvest—a disservice when they rush through the cleaning process. In their haste, some either leave valuable pieces behind or reduce the end quality of the fillets with their handling practices.
To make the most of your walleyes, you need to work carefully and efficiently with your knife and leave nothing to waste. Let’s look at how to do just that most effectively.
Without question, the tastiest fish fillets come from meat that receives good care. Just as you care for wild game, so too must you care for your fish.
After you’ve decided to kill a fish for the table, have a cooler with ice ready to chill the fish. Then, euthanize the fish with a billy club to the top of the skull and cut the fish’s isthmus—the fleshy throat region below the gills. Within the isthmus are blood vessels that connect the heart and gills. Severing this connection will bleed the fish out quickly.
Once at the cleaning table, use a sharp and thin fillet knife to work along the outline of the walleye, cutting diagonally from above the gills, sliding past the gill covers and pectoral fins and down to the pelvic fin and belly. Keep the shallow cut going to the tail or caudal fin, working past the anus and anal fin.
On the top side of the fish, work the knife tip past the dorsal fin and connective bones again to the tail or caudal fin. Next, cut down toward the ribs, then carefully edge around the ribcage. Once you’ve cleared the last rib, you can again cut the entire height of the fish and remove the fillet, leaving bones, head and guts together as one.
After repeating Step 2 with the second fillet, next comes removing the skin— as long as you are eating the fish right away and not transporting your fillets.
Many state agencies require skin patches for positive fish identification toward your possession and daily bag limits. You can save yourself the hassle of struggling through starting a skinning cut by keeping the very last bit of skin near the tail attached to the body.
If you keep the very rear of the skin attached to the carcass, you’ll have extra leverage to pull against while separating the fillet from the skin.
To remove the skin, start your cut running parallel to the skin. Turn the knife edge a couple degrees and pull the skin up onto the knife blade. If your blade is sharp enough, you can pull your fillets over the knife’s edge and remove the skin with minimal effort.
Next, you’ll remove the y-bones from your skinless fillet. Run your finger along the middle of the fillet, just above where you removed the rib cage. You’ll feel tiny pin bones sticking out, creating what feel like raised dots along the fillet. Cut on either side of the bones, removing a small strip of meat to the end of the former rib cage location. Many folks call this "zippering" out the y-bones because the remaining fillet looks like an unzipped jacket.
You now have two boneless fillets that you can chunk up into smaller pieces for frying. Equally sized pieces of fish will have equal cook times. Unevenly sized pieces can lead to some pieces being overcooked and others undercooked. Avoid the latter scenario.
Finally, you can make a couple more cuts for some fantastic eats. The first is to remove the cheeks. Turn the knife and cut along the opercle, or gill plate edge, at a downward angle, slicing back to the eye socket. Stop the cut and turn the blade upward at the eyes, then pull the scallop-sized and textured pieces over the knife to sever them cleanly. Cheeks are a delicacy.
Returning to the carcass, cut forward from the pelvic fins and you’ll get a nice chunk of thick meat from the belly that you can cook whole. Realize, though, that it’s attached to a flat bone called the pelvic girdle, but it’s easy to take bites from it. Many refer to this cut as “walleye wings.”
With nothing wasted on your fish, you’ll enjoy delicious meals and no guilt. Bon appetit!
If you don’t already do so, make bleeding your fish a part of your fillet care process. Blood is nutrient-rich and often a source of undesirable taste in fish. It’s also a food source for bacteria. The quicker a fish is killed and put on ice, the better the quality of your fillets will be. Fish that marinate in warm water or fillets that sit in expelled slime coats take on poor taste.
If you’ve gone to the trouble to catch eating-sized walleyes, do those fish justice and take good care of their fillets for the best culinary experience. The proof is evident in a side-by-side comparison; bled fish (left, above) produce nearly snow-white fillets while un-bled fish (right) carry much more color on their fillets, ultimately affecting the taste.