Okay, you’ve got dead fish…something for the grill, but there’s nowhere to clean ’em in your boat, right? And there’s no way the wife’s gonna let you fillet on her kitchen counter…
No worries, mate! Enter the $5 Fillet Table!
First, a little backstory is in order here.
The $5 Fillet Table’s origins lay along the banks of California’s Feather River. One day back in the late summer/early fall of 1999, I had just finished a salmon trip on the Feather River. We’d done well and I was filleting my client’s fish. There are no boat ramps along the Feather up near Oroville…let alone fish cleaning stations… so I always ended up cleaning fish on a gravel bar, on some uneven patch of grass or on some sand.
Needless to say, doing a good fillet job is tough to do when you have less-than-ideal conditions. It was murder on my knife as it was constantly being exposed to rocks and sand – and I’m sure people found the odd blade of grass on their fillets later that evening.. Come to think of it, I’d bet a few of those fish I filleted “au natural” tasted a bit gritty. I figured there had to be a better way…
So, then I started taking a fish cleaning board along with me. It was simply a piece of scrap 3/4-inch plywood that I had salvaged from the dark recesses of my garage. While the board was a little easier on my knife than sand and gravel, its main drawback was it was as slick as ice when you put a fish on it. A fact that was particularly obvious when I was using it on uneven a piece ground (read: always). The way a salmon would slip and slide around on that board was enough to make you believe that it was still alive. Filleting a fish on that slippery chunk of wood was a lot like hunting teal… you had to lead it a little to make sure you hit the fish with your knife. It’s a wonder I didn’t lop off any digits with that mickey mouse set-up.
Aside from the slickness factor, the board also got extremely, uh, fragrant as the season wore on. I tried hitting it with 1300 psi of water with my power washer, bleaching it, scrubbing it with steel wool. Heck, I even took some boulder-grit sand paper to it but just couldn’t manage to get rid of the stank.
I was still completely dissatisfied with my fish cleaning program, so I eventually decided I needed to build some sort of fold-out fillet table for the boat. My contraption would fit under my seat, out of the way, and would set up in mere seconds. I allocated a crisp pair of Ben Franklins to the project and enthusiastically headed for the holy grail of backyard projects… Home Depot.
I had a vague idea of what I wanted, but no concrete plans, so I wandered aimlessly around the store for awhile, seeking inspiration… or, at least, a helpful, orange clad sales associate. As I walked past a display of welcome mats, the little cartoon light bulb above my head starting glowing brightly. Problem solved! I picked out one of those green plastic Astro Turf mats and was out the door. No assembly required and I had just saved myself 195 bucks!
$5 Well Spent
The next day on the river, I realized I had just made one of the best purchases of the year. First of all, I would always have a place to clean fish. No more hunting around for that perfect little section of flat, hard packed wet sand. The “grass” of the mat held fish very well, so they didn’t slide around… a good thing when you’re wielding a sharp instrument! I also found that I could cut through a fish and into the mat without worrying about damaging my blade. The thing rinses out easily and fits just about anywhere.
These mats work great on boats of all sizes. I’ve taken them with me out in my little aluminum boat and when I go to clean fish, I just lay the turf across one of the bench seats and…presto…instant fish table. I’ve also had them with me when I ran a 6-pac charter boat. You can slap your mat on top of a cooler and go to work. If you’ve got a lot of fish to clean and you’re worried about your back hurting from hunching over too long, do what I do: I’ll put my cooler on top of my trailer and then place the mat on the ice chest.
That way, you’ve got a nice flat surface that’s high enough off the ground so you can stand up straight and clean to your heart’s content. You can also put the mat on a truck tailgate, picnic table, dock, etc. without making a mess.