Best Fishing Knives for Sportsmen, Survivalists and Regular Fishermen

african fisherman with hat

Save the filet knife for the cleaning table. Photo by Jeff Ataway at Flickr.com; CC 2.0 License

Ask yourself the following questions before you choose a knife for your next fishing trip:

  • Is the knife your survival tool?
  • Do you filet fish with the knife?
  • Do you fish on saltwater or freshwater?
  • How often do you sharpen your knife?
  • How often do you lose a knife?

The perfect knife would never need sharpening, cost under a dollar (so you could buy them by the dozen) and never fail no matter what the application — rugged enough to chop down firewood and build brush survival huts, but with such a refined blade you could use it to filet a bass or slice sushi. No one knife serves all those purposes, but few of us actually need a knife that does. Fishermen who’ve been around for a few years can choose a knife without even thinking about it, as long as the company that produced it twenty years ago stayed in business. When things do change, we can make mistakes as easily as anyone else, falling for manufacturers gimmicks that seem like good ideas.

kabar usmc knife

Designed for the U.S. military, the Ka-Bar makes perfect sense as a sporting or survival knife for civilians.

Survival Knives

Survival in the woods usually doesn’t depend on carrying a knife large enough to kill a bear. I suppose in some rare situations a Bowie knife with an 18 inch blade might be appropriate, but the big knives like Ghurka kukris and bolos were made as much for chopping through green jungle as for chopping attackers. Unless you’ve caught something really big, big knives do a sloppy job of butchering fish. Survival knives should be able to handle chores appropriate to survival situations, such as cutting saplings, splitting dead wood for kindling and shaving dry wood for tinder. A heavy knife does very well at these things, but in North America the fisherman needs a knife sized to deal with fish. The best all-around knife design recreates the pattern that won the contract for WWII military issue, the KA-BAR USMC knife. In its several forms, this knife found its way into all branches of the U.S. military and makes a excellent all-around choice for fishermen and other sportsmen who need a dependable survival tool. You can butcher large game, small game and fish with the KA-BAR USMC Survival Knife, and you’ll find the Kabar strong enough to handle rustic construction projects like emergency shelters. Coated 1095 carbon steel resists corrosion and takes a stronger, sharper edge than stainless. The hardened steel pommel drives nails and smashes car windows, and the knife penetrates sheet metal such as the roof of a car or the top of an oil drum without taking damage. The blade comes ground to a strong 20 degree wedge that can take a lot of rough punishment.


A fillet knife with the build
of a hunting knife. Includes
a leather sheath.

 

Fileting Fish

To me few things look as silly as a filet knife hanging from somebody’s belt. Some of the good filet knives come with sheaths, but these slender knives with narrow flexible blades aren’t good enough for anything but kitchen prep. If you butcher your fish at the lake, put the knife in the sheath and leave it in the tackle box. Carry something that’s useful for other things. If you’re a traditional fisherman you might not even need a filet knife, because you eat the whole fish and spit the bones out. Fileting leaves about half the fish unused, and to me that’s a shame. Most of the rest is just as nourishing but more difficult to eat than a boneless filet. Some fish, like bass, trout and catfish, cook up just fine with the bones included and the flesh lifts away from the skeleton, leaving very little waste. If you pressure-can fish, even the bones are edible.

If you insist on fileting your catch, think about this next time you do it. You’ve bought this knife because someone told you it works well, having been made with a narrow flexible blade that follows the curve of the fish’s skeleton. OK, what part of the blade follows that curve? How does a flexible blade help?


Opinel’s 7-inch blade folds
into the walnut handle, locks
open with the turn of a ring.

The sideways flex of the blade does not help. The blade flexes away from the ribs of the fish. What does increase the yield is the narrowness of the blade, allowing you to cut deeply and make sharp turns, whether you’re fileting the meat along the backbone or over the ribs. You get more yield if you do both, and most fishermen don’t do both. Get a narrow blade tempered hard enough to keep its shape, and it will also keep its edge. You can filet a bluegill with a good filet knife, as easily as you can filet a white bass. Keep the rest of the fish for chowder if you don’t do home canning.


Promate’s titanium dive knife
still requires some care and
does include stainless steel
parts

 

Saltwater or Freshwater?

If you fish for saltwater species, get a stainless steel knife. If you don’t maintain your equipment regularly, you might even want to get a titanium knife you can leave indefinitely in saltwater. Titanium won’t corrode at all; stainless steel corrodes slowly; and carbon steel corrodes quickly. Someone who does take excellent care of their equipment can get by with a carbon steel knife even on the ocean. I’ve carried carbon steel knives on saltwater outings and had no problem with them, even though people I sailed with told me they’d rot just from being in the salt air. I suppose they will if you don’t rub them down with oil now and then. Even stainless steel knives won’t last long in some salty hands, but there’s a real advantage to good carbon steel without the nickel and vanadium and chomium — it gets really sharp and stays that way long enough to do something.


Inexpensive wood and steel build
from Mora of Sweden, my favorite
fishing knife for decades.

But, you can get good stainless steel knives today and I do own quite a few of them. They just are not stainless steel in the true unblemished sense. Manufacturers call them stain-free, since they do pit and corrode under abusive conditions, although not as quickly as ordinary high carbon steel. You’ll need to take care of them if you fish around saltwater, by cleaning them after use and coating them with protective oil. Store one in a sheath full of saltwater and you won’t have a good knife for long.

Think of saltwater like blood. Blood and ocean water actually have nearly the same sodium content. If you get blood on a knife, you clean the knife before storing it away. You should do the same if you get saltwater on it. You should do the same if you get plain water on it, stain-free steel or not. Knives need some attention if you want them to last. If you want the sharpest edge, get high carbon steel without the shiny additives and take good care of the blade.


A classic carbon-steel knife set
in Puuko style from Lapland.
Hunting knife, fishing knife and
fire steel in one sheath.

 

Sharpening Habits

Sadly, many sportsmen today rarely sharpen their knives, and many knife owners don’t really know how it’s done. To serve that market, manufacturers provide us with stain-free blades guaranteed to hold an edge longer than high carbon steel. I’ve actually not seen this to be true. I have a carbon steel knife that laid in a tackle box in a damp garage for several years before I got fed up with my shiny new stainless knife and went looking for it. I rubbed a few spots of rust off the blade and it was still sharper than the stainless steel knife ever had been, even after years of disuse. Carbon steel takes a better edge and holds it longer, despite what experts may say. I would imagine that some people have poor luck with either type and find stainless steel easier to maintain, but that’s their loss and a result of their skill level.

In search of the perfect mass-market knife, knife-makers created the serrated blade. The tips of the serrations take the abuse, in theory, and the gullets of the teeth stay sharp. What has seemed to be true, when I have used such knives and watched the results, is that the tips of the teeth dull quickly and the gullets stay sharp because the gullets don’t do much of the cutting. If you almost never use a knife this is an excellent edge pattern. For fishing and for most other work I’d rate it as piss-poor. Still, if you are that type who doesn’t want to mess with sharpening and doesn’t really care, by all means get a serrated blade.

Watching a sharp knife cut is like watching magic happen. Watching a serrated knife cut is like watching a crosscut saw at work. They’re different types of tools. In fact, that’s the major complaint I’ve had about serrated blades. They don’t saw a kerf as a good saw should, and they bind in the cut. Maybe some custom knifemaker will read this and do that, and actually make a good one.


Classic Case 00120 fishing
pocket knife; folding fillet
blade just under four inches
long, plus a scaler with hook-
remover tip.

 

Lost Knives

It’s all about how much you’re able to pay before you can drop your favorite knife in ten feet of clear water too cold for swimming, without feeling horribly sad as you stare at it laying down there on the gravel. Knives are as much art as tool today, and people like me grow unexplainably fond of a good knife, regardless of price. Still, if you’ve paid several hundred dollars for a custom blade with a handle of polished myrtle burl and incredible cross-hatched inlay on the spine, maybe you shouldn’t use it to pry open a split sinker on a morning when your fingers are too cold to work right. I’m afraid to go wading in most bodies of water today unless I have really stout boots on, just because of all the sharp things I personally have dropped, never mind the sharp things others have dropped. A good fishing knife should be cheap, because you probably won’t have it for too long. Wrist lanyards help a lot, but don’t always avert disaster, and cold hands can drop a knife while fumbling with the lanyard as easily as when working on a problem. A “nothing fancy” knife does as good a job as a piece of art does, without that terrible sense of wasted profit when it disappears into Davy Jones’s tackle box. Leave the heirlooms on the shelf at home.


Good multitool designed for
fishing tasks, not repairing
outboard engines or cars. Also
bring a good knife.

 

About Tools

Multi-tools of any kind are incredibly versatile and handy, for just about everything except what you’re working on when you only have the multi-tool. Multi-tools and Swiss Army knives are really bad as knives and really bad as pliers and screwdrivers as well. The handles are wrong, the leverage is wrong, the torque is off-center, and they can’t withstand a lot of force. They’re nice to have, because many of them include a toothpick, and I often don’t have a toothpick stashed anywhere else.

Knives shouldn’t have all that other stuff riveted to them. Knives work much better when tailored to knife uses, and I can say the same about long-nose pliers. A good pair of long-nosed pliers is handier than a knife for freeing hooks, clipping the ends of mono-filament, and crimping sinkers. Neither one works very well if you have to take a reel apart or tinker with an outboard motor. If you depend on hardware and engines to get you places, carry a tool kit to match. I usually sail or paddle, and there’s only one size of nut on my canoe. I carry a wrench for that.

One cold and nasty Spring night in the Ozarks I was dozing on shore in my tent waiting for morning and heard somebody out on the lake in that breezy freezing mist complaining about the weather and making boat noises. I didn’t think much about it at the time, except that the fishing must be almost good enough to get me out there. There was a lot of nearly hysterical laughter and shouts about “It’s sooooo cold!” but nothing out of place for a night of determined angling.

In the morning I went down to the lakeshore to splash water on my face and found a pontoon boat there, with two odd lumps of carpet on deck and nobody about. I still didn’t think it strange and went about my morning routine until the lumps began moving slowly and a man and woman dressed in swimsuits and advanced hypothermia peered out.

Between us we had one multi-tool and that was mine. I drove them thirty miles to the next town to get tools that would actually fit the outboard. Pocket multi-tools will fix nearly anything that doesn’t contain breakable or moving parts. For real problems, bring real tools.


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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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