Photos by Holly A. Heyser
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:
1. Gut the Fish
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.
2. Top Fillet
Put your pike on its belly and look at the stretch between the back of its head and its dorsal fin — that's the fillet you are looking for. This is typically what you'll get when you order pike in fancy restaurants because it is the thickest part of the fillets.
How low do you go? Run your fingers along the sides of the pike just as it curves downward toward the sides. You should feel the 'Y ' bones. Slice just above that. Angle the knife upwards as you get to the dorsal fin so you avoid the bones that anchor the fin into the fish. Remove the fillet.
4. Slice Off the Side Fillets
Now slice the rest of the fillet away from the ribs as you would with any other fish. Cut the edges square and you end up with a thin, boneless, rectangular fillet.
Incidentally, this particular fillet is very similar to flounder or sole, so use it as a freshwater alternative to that expensive saltwater fish.
6. The Tail Fillet
This is the easy part. The tail end of a pike is exactly like that of any other fish. Start your fillet just behind the vent and slice back toward the tail. Don't cut all the way through, though, because you can easily skin these fillets by flipping the meat over and slicing off the skin from underneath. Having the tail fillet anchored to the rest of the fish helps this process a lot.
5. Skin the Meat
Skin the remaining fillets by slipping the knife under an edge of a fillet. Anchor the skin you just exposed with your off hand and work the knife, using downward pressure so you don't slice off good meat, away from you.
As you slice forward, grab the skin with your off hand. About halfway through each piece, you'll notice it's easier to just keep the knife stationary and pull the skin backwards to remove it. This all sounds more complicated than it is.
3. Side Fillets
Use the 'Y ' bones sticking up from the now-exposed meat as your guide. Using the tip of your fillet knife, gently swipe inward underneath the points of the 'Y ' bones until you get to the backbone and the top of the ribs; they all meet in the same spot, more or less.
8. Savor The End Result
When you're done, you end up with five fillets: two thin side fillets, two smallish tail fillets, and the 'money ' fillet from the back. This is the primo piece reserved for the angler or a special friend.
7. Spoon Out Any Extra Meat
What's left is fantastic for fish broth; pike is low in fat and makes a tasty, neutral broth good for soups, stews or to cook rice in. Or you can scrape all that extra meat off with a spoon and use it for pike burgers, meatballs or, if you want to go fancy, quenelles or mousse.
Use a spoon to scrape away from the head of the pike. Follow the angle of the bones and the meat will easily come off in strips — even from between the 'Y ' bones. You'll be surprised how much boneless meat you'll get this way.