Houston Chronicle

Article by:

Shannon Tompkins
Houston Chronicle

Fillet blade is a cut above rest for anglers

Designed to fit hand-held reciprocating saws, Filletzall blades developed by Houston-area charterboat captain Paul Bates give anglers frustrated with limitations of regular electric fillet knives a supercharged option for cleaning their catch.

For most anglers, enjoying a meal of fresh fish — fish they found and caught, cleaned and prepared themselves or with family or friends — is a fishing trip’s delicious coda, a welcomed opportunity to relive the experience and savor the wonderful, natural, healthy meal it provided. But between the bookends of fishing and feasting comes a penultimate step that, if not dreaded, isn’t exactly looked forward to by anglers: Cleaning the catch.

As June sets in, and with it the months-long peak season of fishing participation (and fish cleaning) in Texas, plus the approach of Father’s Day, almost all anglers are looking for a way to make that task less taxing and more efficient.

Efficiency was what angler Paul Bates ached for, quite literally.

The 53-year-old Kemah native captains a 42-foot Bertram, taking anglers into the Gulf of Mexico, where they target the smorgasbord of species found there.

Back at the dock after the end of a long day on the water, Bates’ day wasn’t over. He faced the chore of cleaning what often was a small mountain of fish — snapper, king mackerel, tuna, wahoo, amberjack, grouper.

For decades, he worked with standard fillet knives — mostly fixed blades because available electric fillet knives don’t hold up to the challenges of sawing through the thick scales and heavy bones of many fish. And even if the electric knives did work for thinner skinned fish, running them for long periods would result in, at best, their overheating or, at worst, seizing, stripping or melting gears. And that’s if there was an electric outlet close by, which often is not the case for anglers who clean their fish at dockside.

Frustrating experience

It was long, hot, tiring, frustrating work.

It would wear you out. I knew there had to be a better way,” Bates said.

He found it. And now other anglers can, too, through Bates’ Filletzall blades.

Bates, who has experience in metal work, had an idea. He removed the plastic handle from one of his favorite fillet knives, a Dexter-Russell with an 8-inch serrated blade.

He then ground and shaped the knife’s now-exposed tang to the universal shape/design of blades made to fit all electric reciprocating saws. It was challenging, exacting work, especially drilling the small hole in the tang required to make the blade fit the reciprocating saw, he said.

Bates fit the modified Dexter blade to a handheld, cordless reciprocating saw — compact versions of the two-handed reciprocating saws used in construction and demolition. The reciprocating saws, often generically termed “Sawzalls” after the Milwaukee Electric Tools version of the machine, move their blades in the same push-pull motion as electric fillet knives, but with much more power and speed. Even more important, the compact reciprocating saws are infinitely more durable, immune to overheating and just plain bulletproof than standard electric fillet knives. They can run for hours and never miss a beat. Bates used that first modified blade for a full year.

A ‘better way’

The high-carbon Dexter blade mated with a compact but powerful cordless reciprocating saw “cut through fish like butter,” Bates said. It easily sliced through heavy scales and bones of redfish, black drum, sheepshead, snapper and other species.

I cleaned every fish we brought in with it, testing it,” Bates said. “It was an unbelievably better way to clean fish.”

Even after hundreds — thousands? — of fish, the blade was still sharp enough to easily do its job.

It’s just so much easier and faster,” Bates said. “There’s just no comparison.”

Bates was not the first person to modify a fillet knife blade to fit a powerful compact reciprocating saw. A handful of other anglers and especially guides, mostly along the Gulf Coast, have been doing this themselves or taking blades to machine shops to have the tangs milled to the universal fitment for all reciprocating saws.

But none had really taken it much beyond that. Bates did.

August 2017 Newsletter

Bates contacted Dexter- Russell and they cut a deal. The New England-based company that has been crafting fine cutlery for 200 years builds fillet knife blades for Filletzall, the company Bates started.

“I wouldn’t have done this if I couldn’t have had the blades made in the U.S.,” Bates said.

Since getting off the ground in 2017, the company has expanded its line of fillet knife blades to three models – 8-inch, 12-inch and an 8.5-inch “freshwater” blade that’s thinner and more flexible than the two “fullsize” blades. A 10-inch model is in the works, Bates said.

“It was something built out of necessity,” Bates said. “I knew it would benefit other fishermen as much as it did me.”

Just a year on the market, Filletzall blades have been snatched up by anglers, guides, commercial fishers, fish markets and others along the Gulf Coast and beyond.

Filletzall has shipped blades to Australia and Hawaii, has the blades in 120 retail stores along the Gulf Coast and in states bordering the Great Lakes and in the Northwest. It does a brisk business directly with anglers through its website, filletzall.com, shipping blades across the nation and, increasingly, the world.

Bob Ferrante, who owns and operates April Sound Bait and Tackle on Lake Conroe, was so taken with the Filletzall blades that he’s become part of the business. And he’s one of the best advocates for their usefulness and durability.

“You don’t ever have to worry about the reciprocating saw getting hot and burning up or seizing up,” Ferrante said. “And the blades are just incredible. I cleaned more than 4,000 fish with the freshwater blade and it works just as good now as it did when it was brand new. You can’t even tell there’s any wear on it.”

Bates and Ferrante are quick to say using a Filletzall blade coupled with a compact reciprocating saw takes some getting used to.

'Learning curve'

The difference in using a reciprocating saw and a standard electric fillet knife is like the difference between driving a basic sedan and a high-performance sports car.

“There’s definitely a learning curve,” Ferrante said. “But once you figure it out, you can clean fish so much faster and easier than you ever did before.”

The price difference between the two filleting tools is not significantly different. Filletzall blades run $30-$40, depending on model. Compact reciprocating saws – corded or cordless – cost $80-$120, depending on make and model.

Premium electric fillet knives cost $70-$100, with replacement blades going for $10-$20.

Still, making the change to the “performance” filleting tools isn’t something all anglers will are certain to find beneficial. Some anglers find the compact reciprocating saws too large or bulky or otherwise ergonomically uncomfortable to wield with the precision necessary to efficiently carve fillets. And anglers who seldom retain more than a handful of thinskinned fish can find regular electric fillet knives or fixed-blade fillet knives work just fine for them.

But for anglers who end a day of fishing and face filleting a couple of limits of redfish or a pile of white bass, cutting steaks from tuna or wahoo or mackerel or carving grouper or shark or even the dreaded, daunting job of filleting a halfdozen sheepshead, a Filletzall blade and a compact reciprocating saw can — will — make that task go much faster and much more efficiently.

And that can make the reward of that plate of fresh fish even more enjoyable.

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