Fishing & Boating in the Northwoods

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Fillet Northern Pike & Remove the Y-Bones

R. Karl with huge northern pike

Perhaps you may have heard someone say: “I really do like northern pike, but it’s so full of bones!” I can relate… and I am not alone. I know many a fisherman who loves to fish for pike but throws them back, because he never learned how to remove those nasty y-bones.

Warning: This article contains graphic images of fish filleting that some readers may find disturbing.

And I am certain you likely know just how tedious a task it is to pick the y-bones out of a cooked northern pike. It is simply a royal pain in the rear, and every bite seems to have a bone in it, just waiting to choke you. It is virtually impossible to enjoy the fish, no matter how fresh or how well prepared it might be.

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It’s Easier Than You Think

The longer version of the story about my first pike is in my book on Filleting Freshwater Game Fish. The short version is that the process of removing those bones is far easier than most think. I’d like to share it with you so that your next catch and meal consisting of northern pike will be far more enjoyable!

As always, proper equipment is the rule of the day. A sharp knife is extremely important.

Any size northern will do, but I have found that the larger the fish, the whiter the flesh and milder the taste. So, if that is your main concern, go for the ones that are 4-5 pounds and larger. However, the smaller ones can taste just as good.

Filleting Northern Pike Instructions

fillet northern step 1

Step 1

The first step is to make an incision – starting just behind the head – along the belly of the fish, between and just beyond the two posterior, ventral fins. Some guys like to go around these fins (or even cut them out first, using a “V-shaped” notch). They claim it is easier, and they don’t have to deal with them later. I believe that it is just personal preference and I prefer to remove them later. This first cut is illustrated in the photo above.

northern pike filleting

Step 2

Next, while securely holding the pike by the head, make a cut downward to the backbone and, turning the knife and keeping pressure on the back side of the blade, cut along the backbone and all the way down to the tail of the fish and remove the fillet. Turn the fish onto the other side and remove the second fillet as shown.

Now that you have two nice fillets, the next step is to remove the bones of the rib cage. This is a fairly simple task and is similar to a method used to remove the rib bones from a walleye. The difference here is that a much shallower cut is required, since the rib cage on a northern does not go as deeply into the fish as it does on a walleye.

remove lining from pike

Step 3

Slide your knife just under the white body cavity lining and, again keeping pressure on the back side of the blade, cut toward the belly. It helps to keep very slight pressure on the body cavity lining and back side of the fillet knife with your other hand so that the blade does not stray any deeper than needed into the flesh of the fish.

rib bones removed from pike

When the knife blade slides out near the belly, you will have removed all of the rib bones. I have also removed the ventral fins as mentioned in the first step (note the V-shaped notch on the right side of the fillet in the above photo).

Note: The belly of the fish is where the majority of the fat is, and fat is where toxins are stored. With a larger northern, I generally remove some of this fat – perhaps a strip of a quarter of an inch or so.

y-bones of northern pike

Step 4

Now comes what I believe to be the easy part; this step is crucial to having a bone-free fillet. Simply locate the “dotted line” that runs almost the entire length of the fillet (the knife in the above photo is pointing to a single dot in the line). This is actually one of the tips of the Y in the dreaded y-bone.

extracted y-bone next to a penny

Picture the letter “Y” lying on its side with the stem running up towards the back of the fish. What you are really looking at when you see the “dotted line” is the tip of one the “legs” of the y-bone.
Run the sharpened edge of the knife blade gently along this row of dots and you will not only hear the clicking of the blade as it catches on the bones, you will also make the row more visible.
You are now ready to remove the entire row of y-bones in the fillet.

1st step in removing y-bones from pike

Just above the dotted line, cut straight down and along the line just until the tip of the knife blade begins to click on the stems of the y-bones. The long side of the y-bone runs down into the fish and towards the dorsal/back side.

Follow the leg of the Y, cutting down and then out toward the back/dorsal side of the fish but do not allow the knife blade to exit the fillet.

Exposed y-bones of northern pike

As shown above, the stem of the y-bone is exposed.

Now locate the “bottom” tip or ventral part of the y-bone. That tip, identified in the illustration below, is found about a half-centimeter or so below the “dotted line” (just beneath the knuckle of my ring finger).

Cutting under the y-bones of northern pike

Step 5

Cut in and now under the y-bone, following along the same lateral line as you did for the top side of the y-bone. The photos above and below illustrate this process.
Again, be sure to put pressure on the back of the knife blade and cut inward and upward to meet the edge of the dorsal cut. Just imagine yourself cutting along the outside of the “Y” bone as shown with the dime, three photos above.

Removing the y-bones

Step 6

Now gently lift out the strip of flesh that contains the entire set of y-bones. (A small bit of extra cutting may be necessary in the event that you have not gotten both cuts to meet exactly at the end of the “Y”.)

Lifting out the y-bones of northern pike

This method will allow you to save a great deal of the fish that would normally be discarded using other methods; the only flesh that will be lost will be the small piece that lies between the “legs” of the y-bones. If you are careful, the extra bit of time required will be well worth the effort; a boneless fillet of fresh northern pike is as good tasting as any fish that will grace your table!

Northern pike fillets
Northern pike fillets cleaned by R. Karl, Photo by Yvonne Carpenter-Ross

And there you have it… two fillets of great-tasting northern pike, totally void of any bones. (Notice that in the above photo, I have left all of the belly meat on the fillet – this is the white area in the photograph.

Since large predator fish like pike are found towards the top of the food chain, they will tend to have higher concentrations of chemicals like PCBs and mercury in fatty tissue areas like the belly. My suggestion is to cut out the majority – or at least a large portion – of the belly meat and avoid the risk of ingesting undue amounts of unwanted chemicals.

Now Remove the Skin

Besides, you’ve just saved a lot of good meat anyway by using this method.) All you have to do now is to remove the skin, prep the fillets for your favorite recipe and enjoy some of the best fish that you have ever tasted!

A very important note worth mentioning here is that the “slime” on any fish – and it is especially abundant on a northern pike – is there to help protect the fish from disease. It will lend an unpleasant taste to the fish if not thoroughly rinsed off the fish prior to preparing the fillet for dinner or for freezing.

Mesquite-Grilled Margarita Pike
Mesquite-Grilled Margarita Pike, Photo by Yvonne Carpenter-Ross

Ways to Prepare Northern Pike

One of my most favorite ways to prepare fresh northern pike is a recipe that I call Mesquite-Grilled Margarita Pike. Using a fish right out of the lake. Preparing it in this way will provide some of the best flavor that you can imagine. In fact, it will even be hard to believe that you are eating northern pike. This and many other fish recipes can be found in the Recipes section of this website.

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R. Karl with huge northern pike

R. Karl

Angler, Author & Epicure

Fishing since the age of eight.  Seriously writing since the age of 16. Chef and foodie from the age of 22 years… and counting. So much to learn and so little time. I have enjoyed every minute of it all.  Whether on the water (where I like it best), in the kitchen, or at the keyboard, churning out content, I feel like I have found my place.  I am sharing it with you in the hope that some of what I love to do will rub off on you. I hope to see you On the Lake!

R. Karl