How to Eat A Northern Pike
Y Bone Picking 101
Instructor: Joe Baltich, C.N.P.E.
Red Rock University Online
Red Rock Wilderness Store
There’s absolutely no mystery in figuring out how to eat a northern pike fillet. Northern pike caught in cold water are delicious fish with more body and taste than a lot of different species out there. I must admit that big northerns caught in muddy waters can sometimes taste like mud, but overall all I think this is a rarity for northern Minnesota waters. Hopefully, I’ll take away some of the excitement of “choking on your first Y bone” with the pics and discussion on the following pages. No need for all of those fancy, wasteful, time consuming, pike de-boning techniques discussed by all the “experts” and “guides” out there. All you have to do is know a little bit about the anatomy of a northern pike to easily remove the bones in about 1 minute AFTER the fish is cooked. When you learn this same technique that my dad taught me when I was about 6 years old, you’ll wish you’d have kept some of those 2.5 lb. northerns you threw back over the years. When I was guiding and the walleyes were spotty for shore lunch, I taught this technique to many “I-am-amazed-at-how-good-these-northerns-taste” clients and produced LOTS of converts. In NE Minnesota waters (at least), they actually have more flavor than benign, tasteless walleye fillets. Plus they accept seasonings better as well. Go ahead – admit it: about all you really taste in any fresh walleye fillet is the breading – the meat has relatively no taste. Walleyes are also a favorite because there are no bones in the fillets so you can eat them in a more dignified manner with a knife and fork like you would dine on a steak. On the other hand, If you cut a northern fillet crossways with a knife, you’ll end up making 8 sharp, little, pointy bones out of four. So put the knife back in the drawer. I’m gonna lay out the only way to eat northern pike with just a fork and and your fingers – much like chicken. In fact, think of it as chicken of the sea (lake). Northern Pike eaters aren’t afraid to touch their fish like those wimpy walleye guys.
So if this page helps you understand how much good fish you’ve been throwing back or worse yet, wasting by killing northern pike as “junk” fish or just filleting out the tail section and throwing the rest away (believe me, it happens ALL the time with “expert” guides all over the place), my work here has been worthwhile. Enjoy!
Here you see two northern pike fillets from a 2 lb. fish. Every fish comes with a “lateral line” on both fillets that I’ve indicated with the yellow dotted line in both halves of the fish. In a properly filleted northern with the rib bones removed, you’ll have fillets that look like this picture. Notice the “Belly Fin Notches”. These notches along with the belly meat that curls when cooked, will tell you the orientation of the fillet. See pictures 5 and 5a at How to fillet a northern pike to view this fin, A thoroughly cooked fish will break right along the lateral line easily with a fork. A fish that’s cooked rare (bad – very bad) will not cleave apart easily on the lateral line and it will look “glassy”. Put that one back in the frying pan for a bit longer.
Here’s what they look like breaded. I used Chef Roberts breading and it was excellent! You can also make a good breading by putting in a plastic bag: pancake flour (you don’t need a lot to do a bunch of fish), add a pinch of salt, a few good shakes of Mrs. Dash, a pinch of cayenne pepper for a little zing and maybe a touch of black pepper. Shake it all up, drop the just-washed-and-a-bit-wet fillets into the bag, shake and fry in hot oil. I also use Chef Roberts Fish Fry oil. A little in the pan and fry both sides of fillets till golden brown. You can use corn oil, too.
Here you see a fried, delectable, fillet. Notice the yellow, dotted line. That’s the lateral line you are seeing from the inside of the fish. This is what your minnow saw just before he saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, it was darker and not just fried in Chef Robert’s breading.
Pictured below is the other half of that northern with the fillet upside down. You can see the lateral line better on the hide side of the fish especially when some of the breading falls off like it did here. This is what your partner’s minnow saw when this northern bit your hook instead.
Next Step: On a cooked fillet, break the fish along the lateral line with your fork or fingers. In this picture (left-below), the bottom piece is the Rib Section and the Top Section is where the dreaded Y bones are located. If you are starving, you can wolf down the rib section (bottom half) as you go. OR, this is the section you give to the kids, the wife, or guests who insist that they can tell the difference between walleyes, northerns, and bass. Trust me, you’ll be amazed at how many times they have NO clue. I guided for 23 years and cooked a zillion shore lunches. 99% of my discriminating clients could absolutely not tell me which fish was which by tasting them, but they really loved those northerns! Funny part was that they insisted that northerns would taste bad even after eating a plateful of Rib Sections and declaring how excellent those “walleyes” were. Even after I politely explained to them that they just ate a bunch of northerns, I would be met with denials, disbelief and shocked declarations of exquisite walleye tasting knowledge. Everyone knows that northerns taste terrible. Hey, I was a guide and I got sick of hearing all of those clients’ pronouncements of all-around fishing experience and exposure so I took it into my own hands. This is what happens when the misinformed continue to spread ridiculous nonsense…plus, it was very entertaining as well!
The photo on the right is just the other side of the fillet showing the fork separating at the lateral line of the fish from a “hide” side perspective. Again the bottom half is the rib section and the top section where is the Y bones are located.
Next Step: Y bone removal
To remove them bones, them bones, them Y bones, you need to perforate the Top Section of the fillet with a fork. Follow the dotted line below, perforating the fillet back and forth from about where you see the fork tines at the tail of the fish towards the head of the fish which would be to the right. You’ll need to use your other hand and fingers to hold down the fillet as you pull the fork out. I would have demonstrated this but I needed that hand to hold the camera.
Refresher Shot: The key to knowing what you are poking with a fork is by noticing the subtleties in the fried fillet and its general orientation relative to the hashbrowns and pork ‘n beans on you plate. In the Rib Section, you’ll notice the curled up piece that almost always occurs at the lower edge of the fillet. This is the belly of the fish and the actual curl ends up just in front of the belly fin notch. Noticing the “curl” (enhanced in pic below) is what will tell you immediately where the boneless section of the fish is located. This is a thinner piece of fish and usually crunchier – perfect for the youngin’s settin’ at the other end of the table.
Next Step: Lift and separate
OK- there’s really no lifting, but you can see separation going on in these shots. Use your fork and your other hand to separate the meat on the dotted line you made on the other page. You’ll see all the ends of the Y Bones sticking out just like this. They are clear in color unlike the ones you see below which I drew in black because they didn’t show up well with a digital camera and blue paper. Pretend you are looking at the shadows of the bones. I also drew another bone in red (photo on right) so you could see what they look like when they’re still holding that poor fish together.
On the right is what you should see when done separating. If you don’t see this, make sure it’s a fish that you’re working on and not like a cow or a chicken.
Below is what you will see when you hold up a piece of fillet with the ends of the Y bones sticking out. In your case, it should be minus the “I-just-changed-the-oil-on-the-truck” thumbnail. Eeeeww! My other hand was cleaner but it was holding the camera. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Have you checked out Emeril’s hands up close, lately? Uh-huh!
Just another shot of a deboned fillet with the dreaded Y bones in a fairly neat pile to the right of the fillet. Northern-eating protocol states that the Y bones shall be plucked out with thumb and index finger in quantities of three to six at a time, and then thrown over one’s right shoulder with abandon. You’ll need to explain this part to your wife if you happen to be eating inside. Hey, I don’t make the rules…
How To Fillet a Northern Pike