Minnesota Northern Pike Fishing Article Caring For and Cleaning Your Catch Jeff Sundin Deer River, Minnesota 2006

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Northern Pike - Caring For and Cleaning Your Catch. Jeff Sundin May 2006

During seminars, through writing and on the radio this year Iíve devoted a lot of time encouraging folks to become more interested in how we manage Northern Pike. Iíve hoped to persuade as many of you as I could that the Northern Pike deserves a more prominent spot in our day to day fishing game plans and Iíve tried to convince more of you to utilize a larger share of this abundant resource. With only a few days remaining before the 2006 open-water fishing season arrives, I guess itís time for the last logical step in the process. Here are some ideas about how you can clean and prepare Northern Pike for the table that will help you convert even some of the most skeptical Pike critics.

    When it comes to caring for Pike that you plan to use at home, the first and probably most important step in assuring a quality meal is to keep the fish fresh prior to cleaning. Compared to other popular Minnesota game fish, the flesh of Northern Pike is among the most likely to deteriorate if care is not taken to keep the fish fresh right up to the cleaning table. Weíre lucky to live in an area where Pike (especially the smaller ones) are fairly easy to come by. So when you plan to save some for the table, one great approach is to wait until later in your fishing trip before you start saving fish to take home. If youíre only going to be out for a few hours, it wonít really matter when you capture your Pike. But if youíre out on one of those marathon sessions when youíre not heading home until the evening Mosquito run starts up, it will make a big difference. During the last couple of hours, save enough for a nice meal and youíll be good to go.

    Keeping your fish on ice during transportation is a great way to keep the table quality high. This is especially important now that so many of us have become accustomed to boats with wonderful live wells. We do a great job of keeping the fish alive while weíre on the water. But itís easy to forget to plan ahead for the trip back home from the lake. Using ice to keep fish cold really slows the process of "breaking down" and preserves the quality of the finished fillets. Remembering to bring a cooler with plenty of ice really will make a huge difference and will make you a hero at the dinner table.

    Another key factor in preparing gourmet meals using Northern Pike is to avoid saving Pike in the freezer for periods of time. Like Lake Trout, Whitefish and many of the salt-water fish, Pike flesh contains a particular Amino Acid that breaks down fairly quickly while fish are stored in your freezer. So even if youíve taken great care to keep the fish fresh up to this point, you could be disappointed when you pull out a package of fish that youíve been saving for that special occasion. Because Pike are not well suited for long-term storage, at our house we go with the simple rule of thumb that Pike are to be eaten immediately. After all, thatís the main point about the fun of saving Pike to eat in the first place. Theyíre abundant and easy to catch, so saving a bunch of them in the freezer really isnít necessary. When you get hungry for fresh fish, load up the kids and go get some more!

    Removing the "Y" bones from Pike fillets is part of the mystery that has kept lots of otherwise willing anglers away from using these fish in recipes. You have to believe me when I tell you that removing these small bones is really easy! Even the smallest Pike can be easily de-boned by anyone who can fillet a Walleye, Crappie or most any other fish. In fact, even the term "Y" bone is a misnomer because this so called "Y" bone really isnít much different than the strip of bones that youíd remove from a Walleye or any other fish caught in Minnesota waters. It just happens to be sandwiched into the grain of the fillet where it is protected from "frying out". Although we refer to these as "Y" bones, theyíre actually shaped more like a checkmark or an inverted "L". To completely remove this strip of bones requires only a few simple cuts that follow the edges of this reversed "L" shape.

    This is one of those times when it would be easier to do the job than it is to describe how to do it, but look at the picture of the finished fillets and youíll get a good idea of how to follow these instructions.

    Begin by filleting the fish and removing the rib bones as you would a Walleye or most other freshwater fish. Once you have taken the fillet, study it for a minute. Take a look at the centerline that divides the fillet horizontally and notice the row of light bones visible halfway between this centerline and the top (fishes back) of the fillet. You will be making one cut on each side of this row of bones. Youíll also see that the flesh has a "grain" much like the grain of a nice oak board. The "Y" bones run with this grain and you can use this grain as a directional guide when making your cuts.

    Cut 1: Start by making a cut just above this row of bones that you can see (and feel). This first cut will be shallow (about ľ inch) and it is perpendicular to the fillet. This simple, straight cut is used mostly as an access cut to get your knife into position for the next step. Using the tip of your fillet knife, youíll be able to feel the edge of your knife contact the bones at the inside corner of this "L" where the bones turn toward the top of the fillet. When you feel the knife contacting those bones, take care not to cut through them.

    Cut 2: Turn the edge of your knife toward the top of the fillet at about a 45-degree angle and follow this edge. Youíll be able to see the bones as you gently slip your knife-edge along this edge. Stop the cut before you reach the top edge of the fillet.

    Cut 3: This is the finishing touch. Start this cut below the row of bones on the side nearest the centerline and simply follow the same angle that you used to make cut 2. As the edge of your knife moves toward the top of the fillet, youíll begin to feel this strip of bones peeling away from the rest of the fillet. Trim along these edges as needed to remove the strip and voila, youíre finished.

    So there you have it, all you need is a little faith in yourself, a fairly good fillet knife and a little practice. You will soon learn that there is really no trick at all and before long your family and friends will be standing in line at dinner time waiting to sample your newest Pike recipe.

Jeff Sundin pictured with a great Northern Pike

Above: Larger Pike are great fun to catch and are a real benefit to the overall productivity of a lake. It's better to release these and save smaller ones for eating. Especially in areas where stunting is a problem.

Below: Northern Pike in the 20 to 24 inch range will make perfect size fillets for most recipes and are super plentiful in lots of Northern Minnesota Lakes.

Smaller Size Northern Pike Are Perfect For Most Recipes

The first step in cleaning a Northern Pike is to fillet and remove rib bones as you would most any fresh water fish.

Pike Fillet Before Removing Y Bones

The Y Bones are located about halfway between the center line and the top (back) of the fillet.

Pike Fillet After Removing Y Bones

Northern Pike Y Bones Removed click to enlarge


Once this small strip of bones are removed, the fillet can be cut into thirds for most recipes. We love Northern Pike for baking, grilling, frying, pickling, canning, smoking and above all, we love "Minnesota Cajun Pike". Click here for a recipe that will turn anyone into a Pike Lover!

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