Sharp Knives are Best

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Posted by: Captain Woody - Comments Off on Sharp Knives are Best

Everyone knows the best part of fishing is catching… on the other hand, keeping some for dinner means cleaning them. This daunting, messy and sometimes dangerous chore becomes easier with practice and a sharp knife. Ever wonder if our environmental concern actually fueled the practice of “catch and release” or was it just to avoid cleaning fish.

The key opening word here is sharp and like anything, learning to sharpen a favorite knife and keep it sharp takes practice. Contrary to popular belief, sharp knives are safe when used correctly. Consequently, using a dull knife becomes difficult and often dangerous forcing you to push and tear rather than slice.granddad-fillet-knife

Everyone owns knives and many came with the “a blade so sharp you can shave with it” guarantee. However, unless you become skilled at maintaining a proper edge that promised clean shave could quickly turn into, a self-sacrifice.

Thinking back to when a young man, in his thirties, was cleaning a mess of Shell Cracker’s at Pana-Vista Lodge on Lake Panasoffkee. Working diligently, I noticed a man standing nearby watching me clean or as he called it later “butcher some nice fish. Finally, in a voice of desperation he said, “Hold on there son, I can’t watch this any longer.” Taking something wrapped an old tee shirt from his tackle box he said, “Give me that knife”. Instantly, and with the precision of a surgeon, this old fellow sharpened that knife to a razor’s edge. Handing it back he stressed, “Careful now, it is sharp. “Thank you”, I said, taking up where I left off. Continuing on, I thought man what a difference. Leaving for the cabin, I wanted to thank him again, but he was gone.

Hoping to see him again, I kept an eye open toward the dock. By late afternoon I noticed, him and another man sitting near the dock under a giant oak. Thinking here is a chance to learn about sharpening a knife, I headed down. As I approached he looked up, smiled and said, “Eat them fish, yet”. I replied, “Not yet, having them for supper. Don’t want to interrupt anything but I was wondering would you teach me to sharpen a knife”. Looking up, he said, “Be glad to, my friend here and I where just killing some time. Go get that knife; while I get the stone.”

Returning with the knife, I wondered what he meant by stone. I pulled up a chair and in the cool afternoon breeze he began talking about stones, angles, lubricants, and steels”. I thought, this guy knows his stuff and I asked, “How did you learn so much about sharpening knives”. His friend, feet propped up on dock railing, spoke saying, “He’s a butcher for over forty years, now. “Well that explains it,” I said.

As we continued to talking about knives, jobs, fishing, and life, I discovered things that have stayed with me.
1. Always slice with a knife never push it.
2. Never cut bone, always use a saw or scissors.
3. A knife used for filleting is for that purpose only. Never use it for anything else.
4. Keep your knife in a soft cotton cloth rather than plastic or leather sheaths.
5. Protect you Whetstone and Steel.

There is something different about a fish camp on a late spring afternoon. Time slows and the pressure from our everyday grind just seems to stop, for a while anyway. People seem friendlier and willing to share their time with you. This is what I learned when a person shared his time and knowledge with a younger man on a late May afternoon.

Originally, whetstones coming from natural sources; was the best method of sharpening tools. However, over the years many stone mines surrendered their highest quality materials. The scarcity of these high-quality materials lead to lesser quality stones resulting in non-uniform grit or soft spots. Modern technology and man’s ingenuity have introduced artificial materials of varying formulations and quality. With many improvements and ready availability, artificial whetstones are becoming more attractive today.

Whetstones also known as oilstones depending on their composition require the use water or oil to aid the cutting action. Made from diamonds, ceramic, or silicon carbide some have two sides one course the other fine. These two-sided stones enable one stone to satisfy most basic sharpening needs.

If your whetstone requires water remember to soak it with water for several minutes, no bubbles means it’s ready.” A common mistake people make when using a stone is washing off the muddy powder that forms. Leave it because it helps the cutting action. Anything that requires sharpening needs the correct tool and today there are many new ways of sharpening knives. Still, learning to use a stone properly is priceless art.

Next, important part is the angle. Holding the knife to flat and the blade becomes too thin, breaking or rolling. “A good 20-degree angle produces the best edge,” he remarked. If you have, difficulties imagining a 20-degree angle try this tip: Start at 90 degrees, half of ninety is 45 degrees, half of 45 are 22.5, and that is close enough.

Always hold the knife tightly with fingers on top of the blade and not off the edge of the stone. Now draw the blade down and across the stone, like taking a thin slice of ham. Starting with the tip, moving to the middle and then the back take three slices then three more, soon you will feel a burr developing on the opposite side. When you feel this turn the blade over making a few slices on the opposite side until the burr disappears. That is all there is to it.

Steels are used to the edge sharp and in shape and are used when the knife is already sharp. Look at the cutting edge up close and you see a thin sharp bit of metal. Now imagine after using the knife several times that sharp edge begins to roll or fold. When this happens, the knife becomes blunt. Here is where you use a Steel to comb the edge back in line. But, remember Steels do not sharpen they only maintain the edge.”

While digging around a few years ago I came upon several knives belonging to my departed grandfather. I can remember my dad using one in particular to clean fish. Not a fillet knife by today’s standards it still does a great job filleting fish. Its long, thin, cold steel, curved blade holds an edge like nothing I have ever used. Over a decade it has aged well, still cleans fish, and much easier since, I learned to sharpen and keep it sharp.

This article is owned by Capt. Woody Gore and is copyright protected. Permission to republish this article in print or online must be granted by Capt. Gore. wgore@ix.netcom.com