What is a fishing knife?

Knives are an essential tool for fishermen, both recreational and professional. Whether you are on a dock, on dry land or on a ship you’ll find yourself in need of these tools from time to time. However you’ll hear the question “what is a fishing knife” pop up constantly. This comprehensive guide will aim to anwer that and fill in any knowledge gaps.

When it comes to fishing, it is easy to grab any random old kitchen knife from your counter top or a $5 cheap one from your nearest Walmart. But how long will they last you? The conditions experienced by fishing knives are harsh, the strong will survive and the weak will perish.

It is important to choose a knife that is reliable, that will hold an edge and resist rust even in the harshest conditions. A poor choice may cause you to run to the store over and over again, or even give you tetanus and a trip to the hospital.

In my introduction to types of outdoor knives I classified fishing knives as a broad group of knives. But within fishing knives there are sub types, broadly speaking they are filleting knives for cleaning fish and getting a nice fillet, and bait knives which can be used as general purpose knives.

This guide will cover both sub types of knives and walk you through the steps on how to choose your next fishing knife. I will take the guide through a few stages as follows

  1. Introduction to fishing knives: What are they? What do they do?
  2. How do I choose a fishing knife? – Function and design
  3. Materials – consider the whole knife
  4. Size

What are they? What do they do?

Bait knives

A general purpose pocket knife that could be used as a bait knife.

It is exactly as the name sounds, bait knives are often used to cut bait. These knives are shorter and more rigid than filleting knives. They are hardy and simple.

They come in a variety of sizes, the size you need depends on the size of bait you are working with.

Primarily, they are designed to cut fresh or frozen bait. When you land your catch you can also dispose of them quickly using your bait knives.

These knives are more general purpose than filleting knives and can also be used to cut your line when you get snags. But it is important to note that bait knives are not designed for filleting your catch, if you do decide to do this then you’re in for a rough time.

Some bait knives have two edges, one straight and one serrated edge. The serrated edge has been reported by some to be good for cutting through hard objects due to the sawing action, such as bones or frozen bait; while the straight edge can be used as a simple knife.

Filleting knife

A knife that has been designed for filleting fish.
Tiia Monto / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Simply put, filleting knives are used to fillet your catch. Some anglers also use them for cutting up bait but I find that having a specific bait knife works much better. Using bait knives also prevent your filleting knife from getting blunt, they are thin blades that blunt easily, so save them for the filleting process.

These knives are flexible and vary in size typically from 6 to 11inches (15 – 28cm). The bigger the catch, the bigger your fillet knife needs to be.

It is important to look for one that is flexible yet durable, preferably one from a respected brand.

How do I choose a fishing knife? Function and design

When it comes time to decide what fishing knife you need, the first thing you need to think about is function. What do you intend to use the knife for?

Are you looking for a bait knife that can serve many functions? Or are you looking for a knife to fillet your fish? This is generally the easy simple step.

An Elk Ridge fish filleting knife on a white chopping board


The second thing we must consider is design, and this can be tricky.

With design, you need to look for a knife that you like. A knife that speaks to you. If you don’t like the design of your knife then at the end of the day you’ll find yourself unsatisfied and looking for more. There are thousands of designs out there and it is important to look for the one that you like.

An important thing I must mention is that there are two major types of bait knives available. Folding and fixed blade knives. While folding knives are cool and easy to carry, they also have mechanical components that could rust and break down. Fixed blades are more simplistic in design however they are functional. They offer the availability of being full tang, making them stronger, more durable. There are also fewer things that could go wrong, fewer nooks and crannies to clean as well.

Some fixed blade knives also come with a sheath, it is important to look for a sheath that has draining holes to let your knife dry and not hold water. The material is also important, it will be covered below.

With filleting knives, they are always fixed blades and come with a sheath. These knives must also be flexible, sharp and very thin. If you want to fillet a fish right, you must look for the correct knife.

Material – Consider the knife as a whole

The blade

It is important to choose a material that is rust resistant. I have mentioned similar information in my other guides but they are as follows. The main material that knives are made from is steel, and with steel you generally have 3 options.

1. Carbon steel – The traditional material, it is tough, it holds an edge well. However, it can be brittle, making it not so suitable for folding knives. These steel are more suited for fixed knives with a full tang (the knife extends into the handle). Carbon steel is also more prone to rust.

2. Tool steel – These are often used in industrial equipment, it is more resistant to rusting than carbon steel, it is also tough and holds and edge well. The one major drawback is when it comes to maintenance and sharpening, these steel often require specialist equipment.

3. Stainless steel – These steel are the most resistant to rusting, they are also used very commonly. The major drawback with stainless steel is that they are the least tough out of the 3 common types, it may not hold up an edge as well as the others.

When it comes to filleting knives and bait knives, you are looking for a stainless steel generally. They are the most rust resistant and should last you a long time.

An array of filleting knives with different material, some rusted.

The handle and sheath

The handle and sheath of the knife is often made of similar material. You generally have the options of wood, plastic, rubber and metal (handle only).

With fishing knives you are generally looking for a plastic handle and sheath. Plastic is hardy and durable, it doesn’t absorb moisture or water so it will not be damaged by exposure to salt and water. It also doesn’t absorb the smell of the fish and is easily cleaned.

Wood, it looks good but it can be damaged by water and after a while it will just smell like fish.

Rubber is a good option too, however with long term exposure to sun, some rubber will become sticky and they are not as durable as plastic.

Metal handles also exist, but they can be uncomfortable, especially when it gets cold. Metal can also get slippery when it is wet. Making things more difficult.

So remember to look for a plastic handle and sheath

Size – It matters, it isn’t just how you use it, this actually matters

A relatively large traditional japanese knife that was used to cut tuna.This is probably the most important factor, but it is often forgotten.

Buy you knife based on your bait size and what fish you plan on targeting. If you are using bigger bait and targeting bigger catch, BUY A BIGGER KNIFE. It is as simple as that.

When you are targeting a variety of different fish, you can also opt to buy a set of filleting knives to make your life easier.






To summarize

I hope everyone was able to take something out of this guide. We covered the different types of fishing knives, and how to choose one from a design and functional perspective. It is important to remember to look at the material of the knife as well and buy knife with a size that suits your purposes.

No matter what knife you get, it is important to look after it and clean it with fresh water after every use. It should be stored dry as well.

Also in this guide I didn’t include any knives designed for scaling or traditional japanese fishing knives. While they are fishing knives they aren’t the classic knives you expect to see or be carried to the docks and into the outdoors. I may potentially cover them in another guide.

If you have any questions please feel free to leave them down below, otherwise happy fishing! Looking forward to hearing from you all.

If you’re having trouble understanding the basics of knives, feel free to visit the section I have written on the basics of pocket knives.


2 thoughts on “What is a fishing knife?

  • April 23, 2020 at 4:37 am

    You did a great job James! I believe that this is the information that can’t be find on the web easily and you decided to share it with others for free, that’s really great!
    I didn’t know much about fishing knifes but I’ve been always interested to know more about this topic and your comprehensive guide helped me a lot. I don’t know if you wrote this post 100% by yourself or got help from other sources as well, anyway, it has really brilliant information which convinced me to share it with my friends on social networks.
    I think, the Internet needs more quality posts like yours these days, especially when we see a lot of crappy ads and scams about this topic. You can’t read a post easily on a website without seeing tons popups but your site and post is an ideal example of a quality article which is not covered by annoying ads, has very useful information and lets readers enjoy reading every piece of it.

    Thank you again and I wish you continue providing such that quality information in the future which turn the Internet and blogs into a better place to surf!


    • April 23, 2020 at 9:01 am

      Thanks so much for the lovely comment Ali, I really appreciate it! I definitely strive to post accurate and quality advice, hope I was able to help you out!




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