Seven keeper fluke, plus a half-dozen tailor blues we’d found marauding a school of rainfish on the way in: not a bad morning for a young trout and largemouth guy learning the ways of inshore fishing from an old salt. Russ Wilson, the outdoor writer for New Jersey’s Trenton Times, tied off his AquaSport at the Shark River dock while I hauled the cooler to the fillet table.
I jogged to my truck, collected the fistful of knives I’d put on the seat the night before and dropped them on the table. Russ picked up a Buck boning knife and pressed the blade against the scarred tabletop, which was spackled with fish scales. “Nope,” he said. “Let’s see what else you’ve got.”
Russ unsheathed my Rapala Fish ’n Fillet and turned it, the sun glinting off of the thin, tapered blade. I’d bought the knife a few years before at a Herman’s World of Sporting Goods in a New Jersey mall, back when Ronald Reagan was just getting comfortable in the Oval Office. I’d gotten plenty of change back from my $20. The knife had a thin wooden handle and looked as if it would project filleting proficiency upon whoever happened to be handling it. At the time, I’d used it only to gut a few stockies.
Russ pressed the thin blade on the table, seeing it flex uniformly along the spine. “That’s the one,” he said as he lit a cigarette and grabbed a fluke from the cooler.
Russ was a fireplug of a man, with thick, nicotine-stained fingers, the wide-legged stance of a sailor and a vocabulary to match — and he had the fine motor skills of a brain surgeon. He quickly transformed all but one of those fish into beautiful, uniform, pearlescent fillets that rivaled anything on a bed of ice at a commercial fish market. All with my inexpensive mall knife.
I learned later that Russ had worked as a commercial fisherman, which likely was why he chose the Rapala out of the jumble on the table. Introduced in 1967, the Fish ’n Fillet was modeled after commercial fillet knives that had been worn down after years of use and honing. Fish processors found those flexible blades ideal for following the contours of a fish’s skeletal structure.
I didn’t know any of this when I’d bought the Fish ’n Fillet at Herman’s, but Russ did, instinctively. “Good knife,” he said, handing it to me and coaching me through my first fillet job on the last fluke in the cooler. That was nearly 40 years ago, and I’m still using that same Fish ’n Fillet.
Ron Weber would have been proud, but not surprised, because I was exactly the kind of fisherman he had in mind when he asked Finnish knifemaker Lauri Marttiini to create a fillet knife for American anglers more than 50 years ago. Weber was a Minneapolis fishing tackle sales rep who knew a good lure when he saw one. He and sporting goods store owner Ray Ostrom began importing Rapala lures from Finland in 1960 and selling them through their newly formed company Normark.
Weber also knew a market niche when he saw one. Many anglers in the region would take their catch to a local fish processing plant to get them filleted because they lacked the skills and the knives to do it themselves. So Weber asked Marttiini to design and produce a fillet knife based on a sketch of one of those well-worn fish processor’s knives.
Marttiini wasn’t sure it could be done because knives of the time weren’t slender and flexible. Weber proved his interest by saying he’d buy 20,000 of whatever Marttiini produced. Marttiini complied.
The birchwood-handled knife was packaged with a nice leather sheath and, later, a booklet titled How to Clean a Mess of Fish Without Making a Mess of the Fish. All you needed to do was catch something worth eating.
The strategy worked amazingly well. The Fish ’n Fillet produced more than 40 percent of Normark’s revenue at the time, and it’s still in production in the Lapland region of Finland, in various sizes, along with several variants. More than 60 million of the knives have been sold, and many are still in use.
Dan Quinn, field promotions manager for Rapala, knows about many of those sales firsthand. He works with clients from Alaska to New York to Florida, all of whom fish in different ways for different species. When he mentions the Fish ’n Fillet, he says, he gets stories with a common theme: That person, or that person’s father, or that person’s grandfather still has the original knife, or has his dad’s knife from 30 years ago and still uses it.
One reason for the knife’s success, says Päivi Ohvo, managing director at Marttiini, is the steel. “We use both German and French stainless steel,” Ohvo says. “It’s very close to 420 steel and has exactly the right hardness for fillet knives, 54 to 55 HRC. It can be resharpened at home, but it still keeps the edge well. More important than material is the right sharpening at the factory. That’s the secret.”
That’s why I’ve been able to use the same knife for four decades to fillet everything from reservoir crappies and river walleye to party-boat bluefish and surf stripers. The knife has played a role not just in my fishing, but also in my life. Like the time in 1988 when my girlfriend and I visited her aunt in the shore town of Manasquan, New Jersey, for a long summer weekend.
Aunt Maryann was notorious for grilling the beaus of various nieces to learn their intentions, and I was forcibly sat down on the sofa one night with a floor lamp aimed at me (really). Aunt Maryann sat in a chair across from me, reading aloud a passage in a horoscope book that revealed how star-crossed my girlfriend and I were.
The next day I went fishing, grumpily, and came back with two Ziplocs of fluke fillets that I’d cut up with my Rapala, the way Russ had taught me. We all had a nice dinner, and — whaddaya know? — Aunt Maryann found an exception in her book that claimed her niece and I actually could be a good match. (Reggie and I have been married for 30 years.)
There also were the early spring outings in the 1990s when three friends and I would get together to fish for winter flounder, whether or not the run had started. We’d load a small boat with bloodworms and chum, and we’d fish the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers with frozen hands, feet and faces as the wind blew us off anchor. The few flounder we’d catch were a spring tonic but were nowhere near as potent as the experience of sharing a boat for a day with my best buddies. I’d fillet those fish with the Rapala in my garage at night, celebrating not just the end of another long winter, but also my good fortune at having friends crazy enough to fish with me in such conditions.
Then there were the Mother’s Days in the late 1990s when Reggie and I would take our grade-school-aged kids to visit her mother at a little lake house in northern New Jersey. The dock out back sat on a gravel point that sloped down to deep water — perfect for fishing bluegills staging for the spawn. I’d play guide, baiting the kids’ hooks and suggesting places to cast.
On my desk is a framed photo of Joe and Caroline taken on Granny’s dock, smiling and holding a sagging stringer of jumbo bluegills, crappies and yellow perch that they’d caught on garden worms. I filleted all the fish with my Rapala, introducing my kids to the singular satisfaction of eating fish that they’d caught with bait that they’d gathered.
Rapala now offers 87 knives and knife-related products, from electric fillet knives that can run off a boat’s battery to a “spoon fillet” knife that removes bloodlines from fish with an integrated teaspoon that protrudes from the base. And the Fish ’n Fillet is still out there, still being made, same as it was 50 years ago, still working.
Charter captain Alex Adler has been fishing out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada, Florida, for 35 years. He skippers the 48-foot Kalex and knows a thing or two about fishing gear. I sent him a new Fish ’n Fillet and asked what he thought.
“The steel is good. It’s sharp. It fits my hand,” Adler said. “I used it all week on mahi, king mackerel, yellowtails, cero. Good knife.”
No surprise there.